A COMMON SEQUENCE
A film by Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser
2023, 80 minutes
Within the human struggle to live and work on a changing planet, questions of value, extraction, and adaptation echo across seemingly disparate worlds. A Common Sequence examines shifts of life and labor through a critically-endangered salamander and plant patents in the apple industry. Weaving the stories of Dominican nuns running a conservation lab, a group of fisherman attempting to live off of a depleting lake, engineers developing AI-driven harvesting machines, and an indigenous biomedical researcher resisting the commodification of human DNA, the film becomes a meditation on the shifting border between the natural and unnatural world, and the dynamics of power at play.
A Common Sequence opens in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, exploring the ecosystem of its human and non-human inhabitants. Through the critically endangered native salamander, locally called the achoque, we meet the P’urépecha fisherman Don Maurico and his family and Sister Ofelia Morales Francisco at the Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de la Salud. The fisherman and the nun are linked by the shared use of the salamander: as medicine, food, and commodity. This transformation of the salamander into “goods” segues into an exploration of the salamander’s regenerative properties. A trove of data for genetic research, the salamander is a potential key to unlocking human limb and cell regeneration.
Unable to survive off of the lake depleted by invasive species, Don Maurico’s sons travel to Washington State for work. Their migration story leads us to the city of Prosser, Washington: the heart of the US apple industry and the site of Washington State University’s Agricultural Automation and Robotics Lab. In Prosser, we meet field workers who similarly migrated to the region for jobs. The film observes their expert fruit picking before shifting to a meditation on Artificial Intelligence-powered apple harvesters. As pneumatic arms pick commercially developed apples, local grower Dave Allan explains the methods of obtaining a plant patent. To own a plant patent law requires it must not come from seed; you must create something distinct from nature.
Having followed labor practices across the Mexico-US border, A Common Sequence offers the salamander and apple as parallel subjects of extraction and privatization: fished, farmed, photographed and fed to neural networks, and crossed, grafted, patented, and translated into code.
In a third geographical turn, we travel to the sovereign lands of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe where we meet Joseph Yracheta, a medical researcher and executive director of the Native BioData Consortium. Of P’urépecha descent, Joseph outlines the ethical concerns in the privatization and commercialization of human DNA and the particular risks to indigenous populations. Genomics is the new biological commons, the new gold and oil, he says, and ripe for exploitation.
A Common Sequence is narratively structured to fold back onto itself. In a return to the WSU robotics lab, the film raises the question of humans owning something they cannot comprehend–of patenting algorithms beyond human comprehension. We revisit the apple picking robot, this time through the metaphoric lens of knowledge acquisition: an AI robot in place of Eve. As day breaks over Lake Patzcuaro the fishermen continue their work. The film ends where it began but in a new light. What was distant, foreign, and historical is near, enmeshed, and ever present.
Subjects & Collections
2023 Anthropology Biology Cinema Studies Cultural Studies Directed by Women Health Indigenous Studies Latino Studies Religion & Spirituality Science Sociology Spanish Language
"[O]verflowing with one astonishing image after another." - Hammer to Nail"It’s disquieting, and more than a little foreboding, to hear genetic makeup talked about in terms I am more familiar with relating to intellectual property. These inventions may not be new, but A Common Sequence ties them together in a neat web of synthetic horrors, posing unanswerable questions—what’s an apple to a machine that cannot eat?" - Screen Slate