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#HotDocs22 Review: Make People Better

April 28, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

The title of director Cody Sheehy’s thought provoking documentary Make People Better comes from the three words that James Watson, one of the scientists who first discovered the structure of DNA, wrote to Chinese biophysicist Dr. He Jiankui when he asked him about the ethics of using advancements in technology to edit the human genome.

In 2018, Dr. He successfully used CRISPR gene editing technology on human embryos during pregnancy to create the world’s first so-called “designer babies,” twin girls known as Lulu and Nana. Despite being influenced by titans in the field of human genetics, including geneticist George Church and Nobel Prize-winner Jennifer Doudna, Dr. He was swiftly disavowed by the international scientific community amidst uproar following the birth of the twin girls, and subsequently “disappeared” by China’s communist government along with his infant subjects.

Sheehy’s film mainly digs into questions about what happened to Dr. He and his research, including interviews with a whistleblower who worked with him in the Chinese lab and appears in disguise to protect his identity, and Antonio Regalado, the journalist from MIT Technology Review who helped break the story. What emerges is a chilling glimpse inside how scientific research is done within China’s dictatorship, and how information is controlled by the Chinese government.

The film also features interviews with Dr. He, who talks about his intentions behind the morally questionable experiment, likening it to initial controversy around advancements in IVF, and envisioning a world free from genetic diseases. Dr. He was specifically researching a way to edit genes to make them resistant to things like HIV, but it also opens the door for babies being genetically engineered to have more desirable traits such as stronger bones and improved muscle performance.

One of the strengths of Sheehy’s fast-paced documentary, which is made to resemble a thriller with its slick graphics and music, is how it breaks down the complex science around genome editing in a way that is easy for general audiences to understand. Through this, Make People Better raises intriguing and complicated ethical questions about the prospects of human genome editing, specifically the disturbing ramifications of a perhaps not so distant future where parents get to choose what traits to add or remove from their children in utero.


Saturday, April 30th – 5:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Tuesday, May 3rd – 10:45 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 7th – 11: 45 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on May 1st at 9:00 AM.

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