Make People Better Investigates the Ethics of a Scientific Breakthrough
Cody Sheehy’s latest documentary is an oddly sterile examination of gene editing and the disappearance of Dr. He Jiankui.
Hot Docs 2022: Make People Better Review
It is perhaps unsurprising that a documentary about genome-edited babies rarely turns its lens towards the role of women and deprives them of a platform to discuss the ramifications and impact of playing God with embryos (and subsequently a female’s body). With its subject matter rarely feeling like the point of the film, Make People Better showcases a future where humanity may be altered under our very noses by a scientific community more focused on being first than being right. Seemingly devoid of humanity, Cody Sheehy’s latest documentary is an insightful glimpse into a hot-button issue that somehow strips away the emotional pull of its subject.
The idea of editing the genes of an embryo for reproduction sounds like a future that’s not too far removed. While technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 exists to genetically modify DNA structures, their applications are extremely limited and experimental. Make People Better emphasizes why this is the case with a case study on Dr. He Jiankui: the man responsible for creating the first “designer baby”. Immediately ostracized by the scientific community and hidden away by Chinese authorities, He took the initiative and attempted to prove the case for human embryo editing by applying it to twin girls and providing them immunity to HIV.
Sheehy’s film follows along with He’s case through a few of the people who were in contact with He up until his disappearance in 2018. While the story of a man who tried to play God while everyone else hemmed and hawed is fascinating purely from the perspective of a community too scared to pull the trigger but want to so badly, Make People Better’s blind spots – some of which are impossible to account for and others seemingly forgotten – make the entire journey feel fruitless.
Whenever conversations about reproduction are brought up, it feels almost clueless not to involve women. Make People Better has these conversations about playing God and the scientific community’s uproar over the ethical concerns surrounding He’s experiment, but you can count on one hand how many women appear in this film. Perhaps it’s a deeper systemic issue of almost no women being within the field, but virtually every talking head is male and it is shocking how many times a man’s insecurity about He’s project is brought up without even a word from a woman.
Sheehy doesn’t highlight this. His approach to the film leans more on thriller territory and the presentation is far too sterile to feel like it has any point to make besides “scientists are doing this, did you know?” If it wasn’t for people like Antonio Regalado’s inclusion in the film, there wouldn’t really be much humanity to speak of in Make People Better. Regalado, who first reported on He’s work, has his morals framed against the betterment of the scientific community. Almost played up like the villain of the film, with He the resounding hero just for doing something first, Make People Better is hardly impartial by its conclusion.
There is something to be said about highlighting developments in science that many people may not know actually are happening; Sheehy’s documentary being a very good example of that. However, by choosing the subject matter he did and framing it in the way that he did, Make People Better is a narrow-sighted view of something that affects more than just scientists. Limited by its scope, Sheehy handcuffs himself to He’s disappearance and by doing so ignores some of the most glaring facets of a hugely impactful breakthrough. As a thriller, Make People Better is solid, but as a documentary, it’s better enjoyed as a Wikipedia article.
The Hot Docs Film Festival runs from Thursday, April 28 until May 8. Visit the official website for more information.