Mike Gibisier - Mary Helena Clark
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Zach Lewis Featured Film

A Common Sequence — Mary Helena Clark & Mike Gibisser [Sundance ’23 Review]

February 4, 2023

Laugh now, but back in the 1950s, the CIA would pay top dollar for any hint of mind control technology, leading to the mass hiring of cranks, charlatans, and eventually, the scientists responsible for LSD. Thanks to whispers that USSR scientists had already perfected this technology, the Americans conducted the now-legendary MK-ULTRA trials, proving precisely one thing: that speculative sci-fi and American military funding probably shouldn’t mix. Mix they did, and the most horrifying ideas from the most dewy-eyed dreamers of science fiction were given full funding in the name of, let’s say, defense. No more warnings of technology run rampant from Harlan Ellison, no more alternative possible realities from Ursula K. LeGuin: science fiction is now a manual for the future, and the worst dystopia must be created by us, lest our enemies beat us to it. If the warnings of contemporary works like Black Mirror or Sorry to Bother You don’t fill their audiences with dread, it’s because their messages are true but banal.

A Common Sequence, the collaboration between experimental filmmakers Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser, proposes an alternative. Instead of the speculative dystopian future, Clark and Gibisser focus on the speculative now by surveying the ways research laboratories have claimed ownership of our world. This is not explicitly the film’s point, but research labs do serve as a common thread in the filmmakers’ tours of Lake Pátzcuaro in Mexico, the Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de la Salud, Washington State University, and the Native BioData Consortium. Each place hints at the existence of the next as conversations or quotes contextualize and link each subject into a wider network. The result is an experimental docu-journalism that provokes plenty of great questions about how data-driven every element of our terrifying little lives has become, although it struggles with conveying them through moving pictures.

Salamanders, or, more specifically, the lack of them, open the film, as fishermen — cleverly lit only by their headlamps such that we see only what they see — casually note the disappearance of the achoque, an axolotl native to only Lake Pátzcuaro. This conversation carries us to the Basilica, where the Dominican nuns furnish context: this breed is known to regenerate limbs, organs, even its heart. Here, the nuns use part of the salamander as a syrup to sell to locals who believe that, through consumption, they will adopt the salamander’s near-magical talents. This is presented in an anthropological way, even including a scene in which a couple attempt to buy the depleted syrup but settle for holy water instead. Surely, since it’s presented in such a way, we are meant to think distantly, Americanly, about this Mexican town’s local customs, magical beliefs, and folk cures. Yet someone outside this town also believes that the creature contains such properties, that someone being the United States Department of Defense. As the film focuses on the Basilica’s mural of happy axolotl, a creature so precious and alien that its Pokémon version (Mudkip) exists with no visual changes, a voiceover emerges slightly over the hum of the tanks to explain the DoD’s experiments in limb regrowth for soldiers with missing digits, as well as the axolotl’s popularity in research labs worldwide. They have become so popular that, while the original achoque went extinct, the lab axolotl population has evolved to the point that it’s become distinct from its genetic cousin. Perhaps only the original achoque contained the mysteries that have been artificially induced out of the lab axolotl, a point the voice deems “ironic.” Such is the price we pay for knowledge that has no respect for mystery.

This investigative approach tackles two more subjects: a machine that identifies and picks apples through machine learning at WSU’s Agricultural Automation and Robotics Lab, and Joseph Yracheta’s concerns over private companies owning the sequences to Indigenous peoples’ DNA. Clark and Gibisser follow the same pattern here as a Pátzcuaro family’s conversation about Washington state transports the viewer to the natural and lab-grown orchards there. The filmmakers rhyme enough shots between the workers in the sun and the machine in the lab to further push the point of how much effort has gone into this scientific simulation. And once again, questions of how much this scientific data can actually tell us naturally arise: does the machine truly know what an “apple” is after enough trials in its machine learning space? Does Bayesian optimization to speed up apple-picking 20% add more to the world than the collective culture of apple-picking? Films like this tend to self-select the answers to these questions, but they’re still worth asking. Finally, Yracheta, himself a P’urépecha like the fishermen of Pátzcuaro, appears on a Zoom call advocating for sovereignty over DNA, since private companies have taken interest in Native Americans’ genetic resistance to North American diseases. Here, the human is reduced to data completely, and that data can be sold.

Though this description may make the movie sound didactic, most of A Common Sequence simply sits with its subjects, taking in the morning light of Lake Pátzcuaro, asking a woman among the apple orchards if she dreams of apples, and following the too-smooth motions of mechanical arms finding their target. Clark and Gibisser insert shots of what science’s eye sees: anatomical drawings of the achoque, computer renderings of machine-learnt apples, and the endless pages of Gs, As, Ts, and Cs that mean nothing and everything to a human being. However, barring a particularly great shot in which an aperture opening imitates a sunrise, every visual choice is literal, doubling down on a didactic quality that need not exist. But this brief glimpse at a future that’s already here does give A Common Sequence the kind of curious edge that once existed in the spirit of science fiction. It reveals a world in which cartographers sell their maps and call them the territory.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.