In early 2001, after I had finished [the documentary] 5GIRLS, I began to do research for my next film. I had been interested for many years in doing a film about what it takes to do modern science. I knew of course, that I had to find the right story, in order to really engage an audience.
The controversy surrounding stem cell research was in the news on an almost daily basis at this time, and like most people, I barely understood either the actual science, the promise this research held for curing disease or the implications of President Bush’s decision to limit federal funding for this research. Furthermore, mainstream media wasn’t much help in clarifying what was at stake. For the most part, articles reduced the issues to fears of “the slippery slope” and human cloning, while the debate itself was often polarized into black and white, missing critical nuances of gray.
I believe that genuine insight into complex issues like stem cell research can be achieved by connecting an audience to a compelling human story. I wanted to find a deeply personal story that would really get to the heart of the matter, putting a human face on stem cell research. The first time I read about Dr. Jack Kessler and his decision to change the course of his research to seek a cure for spinal cord injury using embryonic stem cells, following his daughter’s skiing accident, I knew I had found the story I was searching for.
"The challenge to find consensus in a society that is both pluralistic and deeply divided over accepted norms speaks not only to our notions of social justice, but to the very nature of who we are as citizens, the vastness of our power and the responsibility that comes with it."
Their story was incredibly powerful on so many levels—I hoped that once my viewers were invested in their lives, I would be able to lead them to a greater understanding of the political, religious, ethical and scientific issues surrounding this promising but controversial science.
One of the greatest things about being a documentary filmmaker is getting to learn everything there is to know about the subject of your film. In order to make a documentary about stem cell research, I had to understand everything I could about the science of stem cell biology, including why it is so controversial. Dr. Jack Kessler and his grad students, Vicki and Vibhu, were great and patient teachers.
MAPPING STEM CELL RESEARCH is the story of Dr. Jack Kessler, a leading scientist and neurologist passionately involved in the scientific process, who believes deeply that embryonic stem cells may just be the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine and the way to help thousands of people recover their health. However, it is also a story of the resilience of two young women, Allison (Jack’s daughter) and Carrie (the daughter of one of Jack’s colleagues), who undergo traumatic life-changing accidents that leave them wheelchair bound. As the story unfolds, we experience how each of these women come to terms with their loss, in effect, healing themselves. They choose not to wait for a cure, but instead move on, to live full and rewarding lives.
Stem cell research may not work, as Dr. Laurie Zoloth, the film’s bioethicist, reminds us at the end of the story. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the issues surrounding this research because the debate about the use of embryonic stem cells, with its competing moral appeals, is the archetypical scene of moral philosophy. The challenge to find consensus in a society that is both pluralistic and deeply divided over accepted norms speaks not only to our notions of social justice, but to the very nature of who we are as citizens, the vastness of our power and the responsibility that comes with it. For all of us, it is important to understand the most effective ways to discuss this complex, volatile issue. Can we develop a common language that is respectful of differences? Do we have a societal responsibility to alleviate pain and disease? If we can’t find common ground in public policies, the corporate world will make their own profit-motivated decisions. If that is the case, how will the research be regulated, and who will have access to its outcomes?
The decisions we make and the actions we take go way beyond whether or not stem cell research should move forward. They speak instead to the very nature of who we are, how we manifest our agency and how we perceive our accountability for the future of humanity.