Cells (working title)– an experimental documentary under development by artist and researcher Annie Crabtree and cancer research scientist Nicolas Rabas

‘Biomedicine intervenes with time, it stops, starts, reverses’ (Naomi Pearce, Trying to Conceive,  an essay for Lucy Beech's Reproductive Exile. 2018) and our social fabric is equally shaped by it, with what was once restricted to the spheres of science-fiction and speculation is now a tangible reality. Can hindsight prevent scientific miracles from becoming future horrors? By interrogating unreliable witnesses of the past, can we ensure the agency of future bodies? 

The frontiers of biomedical research promise a utopian future forged through the augmentation of the body on a cellular level. Genome editing using CRSPR/Cas9 is making waves in the biosciences, offering a way to easily genetically engineer any living organism. What a decade ago seemed the prospect of far flung future, firmly set in the domain of sci-fi, ‘designer babies’ or a resurgence of eugenics, is now a prospect of reality. Such advances are riddled with ethical controversy, unsettling the narrative of a linear evolution towards enlightenment. In hindsight, our past is a dystopian landscape: grievous violations of bodily autonomy and human rights, abuses and perversions of power, have been exposed. These histories continue on embodied in the techniques, practices and cultural fabric of medicine and the biomedical industry, and within the research that forges the future progressions of biomedical knowledge and its applications. Advances that are not immune to the grasp of late capitalism and neoliberalism, with biotech and biocapital making commodity of the body and laying responsibility for ‘unacceptable’ bodies at the feet of the individual. Science, it seems, is not neutral.

We ask: where does the person end and the specimen begin? Who does ‘it’ belong to? What rules govern the parameters of how we define, perceive, understand the body, our bodies, other’s bodies? How will our bodies be perceived, understood, manipulated in the (fast approaching) future? And what inequalities still raging in society will dictate which bodies gain and which loose in this evolution?  

To shine a light on these ethical concerns, we propose an experimental documentary about the use of human material (particularly taken from women and people of colour) in biomedical research. We look to Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells as a point of entry, which for the purposes of explaining how human material has grown essential to biomedical conglomerate offers up a famous and particularly controversial example. HeLa cells are the oldest and most commonly used human cell line, the first immortalised cell line, generated from cervical cancer cells taken from Lacks, non-consensually, in February 1951 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the only hospitals that would treat African Americans, where a few months later Lacks died. These cells have gone on to be used in all manners of biomedical inquiry and technology developments, with over 11,000 registered patents using HeLa cells. They have been used in various investigations from disease research, gene mapping, and effects of materials from toxic substances to radiation to cosmetics. With an estimated 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells currently in existence, both the cells and their origin story are owned, reproduced and manipulated to meet ideological, political and industry agendas. Who else's bodies have been consumed in this way? What other stories are we unaware of? 

We will utilise the techniques of documentary to look back at past failures and problematise contemporary practices through engagement with the multitude of representations, manipulations and incarnations of people’s stories (like Lacks) and their cells. Found imagery will be collaged, collating newsreels, documentaries, and other material that (directly and indirectly) refers to the use of human cells in biomedical research, offering up moral, ethical and political (and undoubtedly contradictory) interpretations of this practice. We will bring this material into dialogue with new dialogue and footage shot in Rabas’ lab, while employing storytelling methods of sci-fi and scripted conversations to speculate on alternative outcomes and potential futures. Rabas’ hands working lab equipment, manipulating cells through various processes, will be shown alongside microscopic imagery of immortal cancer cells lines used, preserved and cloned as part of Rabas’ research. Initial testing footage of this can be seen in the accompanying visual reference material. 

The film will deliberately drift between varying interpretations of history and truths. A woman’s voice, an unidentified fictional character with an international accent will guide the viewers through this plethora of material. Her voiceover will describe and speculate on the ‘evidence’ being presented to the viewer, alternating tense, tone and perspective and playing with timings to allude to an omnipresent overview. This voiceover plays with the documentary trope of the ‘voice of god’, utilising it to enhance the science-fiction-like atmosphere found in this modern biotechnology and its manipulation of the human body. We only see her occasionally, towards the end of the film: a woman of colour wearing a white lab coat. She has a powerful presence, reassuring and unsettling. She may at some point speak directly to the camera, directly to the viewer, breaking the fourth wall and disrupting the expected norms of how information is fed to audiences in the documentary format. Unsure of who or what she is, this narrator will complicate what we consider ethically and morally ‘right’, while simultaneously probing the viewer to question their consumption of information and their trust in her narration – unsettling documentary as a mode to deliver truth and science as unequivocally neutral ‘fact’. This approach is designed to problematise the use of human material in biomedical research, demonstrating the complexities and nuances of such advances, while also complicating the mode of presentation – documentary and its equally problematic past.

The intention is to produce a documentary that does not easily provide answers. And perhaps is not even easy to watch. In the case of both Henrietta Lacks and her legacy seen played out in the mass use of human cells in biomedical research, there are no straightforward conclusions available and discomfort should and cannot be avoided. 

Image: example of HeLa cells. Credit: National Institutes of Health (Creator: Tom Deerinck, NIGMS, NIH) 

Using Format