Cells (working title)

Cells is an experimental documentary under development in collaboration with 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) 

Our social fabric is equally shaped by the biosciences, 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?

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


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 propose to 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. For example, we will look to journal articles, 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 current conversations and footage shot in Rabas’ lab, while employing storytelling methods of sci-fi and scripted conversations to speculate on alternative outcomes and potential futures.

Our approach is 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-like film 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. 

Using Format