DOCNYC review: ‘Human Nature’

An image of a scene from the documentary film Human Nature.

The technology and ethical implications of gene editing are in focus in the documentary “Human Nature.” PHOTO CREDIT: Greenwich Entertainment

Documentary films frequently have a list of participants, or featured subjects, which scrolls during the end credits. They are essentially the ‘cast’ of a non-fiction movie. “Human Nature” kicks it up a notch, and does something rather brilliant. When the names appear onscreen, they are accompanied by a memorable quote from the person in the film. Most documentaries display the name of the person they are interviewing onscreen if there is no narrator, but let’s face it: viewers will likely forget the name by the end of the film. This quote trick sparks some recognition and reflection during the credits crawl.

This foresight and thoughtfulness isn’t just reserved for the end of the film. “Human Nature” finds subject matter experts who do a great job of explaining a complicated science in a way that is easy to understand. It doesn’t strip the topic down to its nuts and bolts, but it provides a basic overview and understanding so the viewer is prepared to tackle the sociological ramifications of the technology presented in the film’s second half.

The core of the doc is CRISPR and its impact on the field of genomics. Perhaps some have heard the term before, but didn’t quite understand its applications(like this writer, who thought it was a machine). That is exactly why director Adam Bolt made the documentary: to bring the public into the conversation about the technology. It is a relatively new discovery, but one that is leading to big advances at a rapid rate. Remarkable that such an ancient concept feels so new, and has the power to alter the future.

Perhaps no other phrase was so desperately in need of an acronym as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats(CRISPR). CRISPRs are sort of like a genetic memory used to defend against bacteria. They manifest themselves as repeating sequences of genetic code that have spacer sequences in between. CRISPR is used to identify particular DNA using the spacer sequences. Once located, the DNA sequence can be modified using the Cas9 enzyme. The enzyme natively binds to the DNA and cuts it, but a modified Cas9 can be used for gene expression instead. This is what allows for genome editing.

Rest assured that the film does an even better job of explaining this concept. It features interviews with a wide range of scientists, from CRISPR co-founder Jennifer Doudna to a man who develops cultures for yogurt brands. It talks with a founder of a startup that has developed human-compatible organs inside of live pigs, and it explores the idea of resurrecting an extinct species with a Harvard research lab.

After the much-needed knowledge transfer, the film presents some of the ethical conundrums that have surfaced around gene editing. Instead of sparking debate, “Human Nature” wisely sticks with the same scientific panel for this side of the discussion. The arguments and facts are simply laid out on the table. Some people share slight leanings on certain arguments, but it’s left up to the viewer to wrestle with their own opinions.

Credit also goes to Regina Sobel, the editor and co-writer. After all, it has been said that movies are made in the editing room. Two and a half years of research and camera footage comes together as a tight, 90-plus minute documentary.

The best documentaries leave viewers more knowledgeable about a given topic while crafting an entertaining journey. The knowledge may be as basic as awareness, or getting to know what makes a particular subject tick. “Human Nature” informs in a way that feels nearly educational, but without the depth and heft of a science textbook. The viewer can’t help but feel smarter after watching it. Any decent documentary will entertain, but not many can boast a perceived IQ boost.

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