It’s easy to start shooting a documentary without knowing where it will lead or how the story will be told. In fact, many good docs have begun that way.
But for Christian Frei (War Photographer), the mark of a great storyteller is to decide, as a director, how you will capture the story. Frei had no idea what his next documentary would be when he came across a book by geneticist George Church. In the middle of a chapter about the resurrection of the woolly mammoth, Frei saw the iconic photographs of Evgenia Arbugaeva, capturing the remote New Siberian Islands where each summer, Yakut people of Siberia spend a few dangerous months searching for mammoth tusks thawing from the ice in a warming climate.
Frei suddenly had an epiphany that this would be his next film.
“The epiphany came because I knew...the more of these hunters seeking the ivory, the more there's a possibility they find a carcass,” explained Frei to No Film School "and the lab guys, the geneticists, they need that carcass. It's a topic of the past and the future in the same mission.”
Frei knew the next four years would be devoted to a story combining the intrigue of synthetic biology and the Russian tusk hunters. The only problem? Due to it being reclassified a military zone, it's illegal for foreigners to travel to the New Siberian Islands. Arbugaeva lead Frei to a young Yakutian hockey-player-turned-filmmaker, Maxim Arbugaev. Frei enlisted him as a co-director who would embed on the New Siberian Islands while Frei would document the provocative work of geneticists from the United States, Russian, China, and South Korea.
The result is Genesis 2.0, which won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Cinematography and is out in theaters this week. Christian Frei sat down with No Film School to talk about directing, shooting in a dangerous place, and what the role is of filmmakers when it comes to navigating the ethics of scientific breakthroughs.
No Film School: Your films have a specific visual, and in Genesis 2.0, there is a specific style to the storytelling. How did that work with Maxim? Did you have a conversation about the rules of how you would film throughout and on the New Siberian Islands?
Christian Frei: Yes. We met in April of 2015 for the first time in person, and he came, wonderfully, with his sister. She played "bad cop" a little bit, but I loved it. We had a very small window, only August and September, to shoot on the islands when these tusk hunters were there. We had a very trustful conversation. Soon after, we began to pick up our style of the film, and of course, Maxim was watching all of my films. He talked with my cinematographer, Peter Indegand, who does all my camera work in all my features.
He asked a lot of questions, and we decided the style on the island will be based on what I love. I consider directing, in a purely observational style, one of the best styles we can have. I mean, no, I cannot go and visit George Church and tell him, “I'm not even here.” But we knew this is the style we wanted. Maxim would be embedded with a group of tusk hunters. He will share the food and the gasoline. They had 800 kilograms of gear and gasoline and food and he shared it with them and his assistant, who was even younger than him. They shared their daily lives.
They walked like hell, because it's all walking, walking, walking. This is a very specific production, because there are no cars. We prepared it technically, not a heavy camera, et cetera. But we also talked a lot about directing. What does it mean? What is the encounter with these people? Where do you feel it? The way you hold your camera is showing you. I mean, you are basically in every frame as the documentary-cinematographer. He understands that and we found a deep understanding.
A tusk hunter goes by in a snowmobile on the remote New Siberian Islands as featured in the new documentary 'Genesis 2.0' co-directed by Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev.
Frei: I wrote him a poem about encountering and holding the camera, and even time. And this was the plan. I totally trusted him, because I knew with that film, I won't be able to daily have a briefing or anything like that. We did speak about a method, which I like to combine with the direct cinema that nevertheless is doing some staging. They see some interesting coast, where you see the grass and you see the melting and the ice. We want to show that, and it doesn't matter if this guy's working there on his own and we're just behind it, or you make him look that way. This is my difference to Frederick Wiseman and all these purists. But this is just the way I always work in the core, purely observational. Don't talk, don't interfere, don't say, oh, thank you, can we do it again? Nothing.
But, for certain elements, you need to tell the story. You tell them things which they will do anyway, and you tell them that you're ready with your camera. There's not a big contradiction with the other method. We talked about these things and he did a great job. I mean, he won the best camera award at Sundance!
NFS: In the film, we hear you both reading your exchanges and messages with each other. At one point, Maxim says something like, "I'm running out of battery, I don't know if you'll get this next message." Out there in this remote area on the New Siberian Islands, was he equipped with particular tools or cameras to make this happen? What were the logistics in the middle of the poetry?
Frei: The logistics? Well, first of all, the problem was that he also had to have things like a rifle, and he's used to using that. He's from a hunting family. The key was to consider what was needed for the technical parts of filmmaking, but first and foremost, to prepare as an expedition.
Beyond that, the filmmaking, you have to be aware there is no back up. There is no town. There's no DHL. You have to have redundancies, but also to be really precise when you pack. The camera, I can't even tell you what model it was, but it was simple, a big Sony, and the back up camera, the A7, which he didn't like so much. I don't know why, because it's a wonderful camera, but everyone finds their own. At one point, he fell into the water with the main camera. He didn’t like the A7 so they dried the camera for three days, day and night. One was sleeping while one was awake with the gas lamp, drying. And after three days, it worked again!
The reason, actually, Maxim feels why he fell into the water is also interesting. Because he's Yakutian, he believes in the taboos and the salama and to give something back to Mother Earth. He made an agreement with himself: "When we find the first tusk, and when I will begin filming the first tusk, I will do the salama." He will give something back to the earth.
It t took two-and-a-half weeks, and they didn't found any nice tusks, just little sharp bits. No film so far, and he was really getting nervous. Then they found the first tusk and he was, of course, super excited. He did a great job with some film, but he forgot to do the salama. He didn't say thank you to Mother Earth.
He got on the sled to go back to the main base and at a certain moment, along a lake, it just fell down, and he fell into the water for 30 seconds, and really under the water. He took off the lens and water was pouring water out of the camera. It was totally soaked. So this is one proof that they were really filming at the end of the world. You have to imagine, it was up to 45 kilometers in total that they were walking in a day. They couldn't take too much with them. One result is that the pictures are beautiful but the sound was not always so great.
But my working tradition is always a huge, huge effort post production on sound is, for me, crucial. What you hear now in Genesis 2.0 is 80% from the sound artist. Not the dialogue but the layers, grass, earth, ice, grass, earth, ice, and bone. Every sound is perfect. We would have an incredible sound guy, but it didn't interfere with the shooting, because I've nothing against great sound guys, it's just tricky with documentaries, because you cannot interfere too much.
NFS: When did you see Maxim’s footage for the first time?
Frei: I remember it so well. I went to Moscow with my co-editor, Thomas Bachmann, in autumn 2015 when Maxim came back. He flew in his mother to Moscow, which is a five hour flight because it's a huge distance between Yakutsk and Moscow. She cooked borscht for us and we were in his living room going through the footage. Of course, I was nervous, because, again, you can change things like sound in post-production. You can do grading. But how will you feel about these guys?
Since he's young, Maxim wanted to take the GoPro and the drone. I talked him out of it. Because for me, these are real people. Don't overwhelm them by doing too much drones, etc. They begin to be actors. It's very dangerous. The hunters were aware of the cameras for the first two days. They were asking, “What are you always doing?” And then they just forgot. I mean, they were acting just a little bit, you know? But Maxim was also a nice guy, from their culture, sharing their meals, sharing their hunger after certain moments. They were really getting hungry. And this is again, a direct cinema style, purely observational. You are just one of them and they really forgot about the camera.
In a documentary, I still feel [that the camera] is your body and is meant to really express your brain. It's your vision. It is visible for the audience, and I love it. So don't do cables. Because with the gimbals, for example, you are in danger that you could walk in front of the guys, which wouldn't be possible if you walked backwards on grass. But that's a bad idea. I mean, because this is not an actor. Where should they look? It's a very strange thing. You shouldn't do it. So these are things I told Maxim. Don't walk in front of them and tell them not to look into the camera. Never do it.
NFS: When you saw his footage for the first time, had you already been capturing the other components of the story?
Frei: No. When I went to Moscow to watch the footage, I didn't have any money. I knew I had the core of the film. It was a lot of footage, so I didn't know exactly how to tell the story on the islands. That's why I took Thomas with me. Normally, I'm editing my films on my own. But Thomas, this time, was a great co-editor. And he knew, okay, there's a film now.
I had to begin to raise the money and I began to do the research on the lab, and of course I was horrified. On one side, I saw this footage already [from the New Siberian Islands], the incredible landscape, these tusk hunters on sleds and snowmobiles. It's visually strong. But I have the fucking labs with the Petri dish! You know, it's boring. So this was the challenge of the filmmaking, how to tell it as it is now told in the film, that they are both parallel. Of course, I talked a lot with Peter Indegand, who was the cinematographer, for the rest of it.
Take, for example, Dr. Church. He's not a hunter. He had five-and-a-half hours for me, and that's a lot for Dr. Church, they all told me. Normally he gives just an interview for the camera and some feed. How do they call it? B…
NFS: B roll?
Frei: That is not the way I work. So I had to do what you see in the film with Church. I planned the car drive to the iGEM Competition [a competition for undergrads hosted by the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation] and the encounter with all these enthusiastic students there. This is five-and-a-half hours. So forget about just showing up and filming, no? You have to plan for that. It's all set up somehow because you are not just following what they're doing.
World-renowned geneticist George Church is featured here in a signature Frei set-up of passenger in an automobile as seen in this still from 'Genesis 2.0.'
Frei: And then, of course, the students encounter Dr. Church and are so enthusiastic. It's like bringing Steven Spielberg to the Cincinnati Film Festival. This is their Pope, their superstar. This is the other side, because it was organized by me. He had never visited this iGEM gathering before. So it needed to be planned very carefully. It's a whole strategy. I anticipated that they will recognize him and being enthusiastic and something will happen. It's not directed, but it is a set up. This is then my method.
I'm not speaking with people, interrupting. But planning, plan A, plan B, this is all in our heads. You don't see the director standing next to the cameraman and sound guy telling them maybe to do a shot here. There is no time for that. I'm actually just with my little monitor. In order to not have too much boring shit from the labs, you have to do the work as a director, not a cinematographer. This research has nothing to do with cinematography. This is my style.NFS: I’m curious, what do you see as the role of the filmmaker? Here you're examining the potential future of synthetic biology. How do you see the role that filmmakers could play in the conversations where we decide as a culture what is and is not ethical about these possibilities?
Frei: First of all, today I feel it's more important that we, the media guys, the journalists, book authors, and artists, are aware that scientists are not our enemies. In times of conspiracy theories and stupid rumors of vaccination fairy tales which are bullshit but which thrive on social media, we are going away from enlightenment. I see scientists as my friends. I just don't want to be from the beginning a dystopian view of these horrifying technologies.
If you look at the film, the film is not made like that at all. It raises big questions, and I feel it's really important in China, but you see that they are enthusiastic. I'm not depicting them just as monsters. This is really important: Scientists are artists too. They go to the unknown. They break rules.
I approach a tusk hunter in the same way I do a scientist, or maybe the cleaning lady in the White House the same way I would approach Melania [Trump]. I mean, it makes no difference. I'm interested in people's visions and dreams and conflict and daily lives and restrictions and handicaps and struggles. There's really not a difference.
"I make a living out of making a documentary every four years. This is very radical. You don't have it everywhere so fight for that in your countries."
Frei: We do have to be self-critical as documentary filmmakers. Who are we going to reach? Only our "bubble people?" Just saying what they already know we are going to tell them? Of course I want to raise questions. But what I define as the beauty of documentary filmmaking is not giving an answer but rather, erasing the question.
First of all, I mean, especially for U.S. readers, I would like to encourage them that documentary films are also a piece of art. They're not just part of a campaign. You shouldn't just hammer your message into the heads. The artistry in my films is sometimes questioned, be prepared for that and just trust in your methods. Push. I mean, this is what I do. I make a living out of making a documentary every four years. This is very radical. You don't have it everywhere so fight for that in your countries. We have a broad range of expression now, in how we express ourselves. Believe in your instincts and in your passion for it, because to me it's the most beautiful work you can do.