In Walter Besant’s 1888 novel The Inner House, a scientist makes a medical discovery that allows human beings to live forever; his discovery is adopted by the state and shared with the people, but future generations find themselves devolving into brainless, loveless and purposeless automatons. While the novel is poorly written and resolutely Victorian, it does make a good point: Our mortality is our driving force. For better or worse, we don’t have great deal of time to navel gaze.
In Make People Better (screening at the Roxie Theater at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9, as part of this year’s Green Film Festival of San Francisco), we learn that 21st century scientists are working on gene therapy that — while unlikely to guarantee immortality — may be able to fix flaws in our DNA that currently cause hereditary disease and birth defects. The film focuses on idealistic Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who — inspired by American geneticist George Church (currently involved in a CIA-funded effort to resurrect the woolly mammoth) — took the science to its logical conclusion by “creating” genetically edited twin babies for an anonymous, HIV-infected Chinese couple.
Directed by Cody Sheedy, Make People Better is as much a mystery as it is a documentary. While focusing on the serious ethical questions raised by He’s work, it also criticizes the scientific community that opportunistically abandoned him and the Chinese government that disappeared and then imprisoned him. It’s captivating and edge-of-your-seat stuff that reminded me of one of Frankenstein’s most powerful moments.
The festival (running from Thursday, Oct. 6, through Sunday, Oct. 16) also includes two films of local interest. Into the Weeds (screening at the Roxie at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, and available online from Oct. 11) tells the story of Vallejo resident DeWayne ‘Lee’ Johnson’s legal battle with Monsanto, the manufacturer of a popular herbicide, Roundup, which has been found to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
This ferocious courthouse struggle ultimately ended with Monsanto losing to the tune of millions (and later, in order to settle other cases, billions) of dollars. Sheedy’s film also highlights the fake science utilized for decades by Monsanto to prove Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate were harmless, as well as the “corporate capture” of the Environmental Protection Agency that allowed to company to get away with murder for over 40 years.
(For another cinematic evisceration of Monsanto and glyphosate, I also recommend Brian Lilla’s Children of the Vine. Lilla’s film, which covers the Monsanto trial within a broader discussion of glyphosate, recently screened at the Elmwood and will screen again at Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol on Oct. 11.)
In the short subject For the Bees (available online throughout the festival), Oakland-based director Chloe Fitzpatrick tells the story of Yemeni immigrant Khaled Almaghafi, who brought his beekeeping skills to The Town as a teenager and has been tending to hives and running two bee-related businesses ever since. Almaghafi loves his bees and also appreciates the critical role they play on planet Earth — and the dangers posed by their ongoing population decline.