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#HotDocs21 Review: We Are As Gods

May 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Titled after his old motto “we are as gods and might as well get good at it,” the documentary We Are As Gods offers an intriguing look at the ideas of Stewart Brand. A life-long conservationist, Brand is now at the forefront of the modern de-extinction movement, and is determined to bring back wooly mammoths using their DNA.

Directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, and serving as a natural progression from their previous documentaries The Immortalists and Bill Nye: Science Guy, the film works as both an engaging biography of Brand, as well as an interesting introduction to his work. A former hippie, the film touches upon Brand’s time as part of Ken Kesey’s Merry Band of Pranksters, his experiments with psychedelics, and his founding of the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural publication that gained him prominent followers such as Steve Jobs.

Brand was at the forefront of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, only to start breaking away from it when many in the movement started opposing technological advancements. His support of genetic modification and using biotechnology to help reverse extinction still puts him at odds with many environmentalists, believing that the solution to climate change lies in repopulating certain areas with wooly mammoths and other large grazing animals that will help cool the ground.

The film takes us into Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where the permafrost is melting due to climate change, causing methane gas to be released. Founded by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, the park is being cultivated as the future home for wooly mammoths, which Brand hopes will help reverse the warming process. While Brand concedes that mammoths are still quite a ways off, advancements in biotechnology have already allowed scientists to bring back American Chestnut trees, which were all wiped out due to a fungus in the 1900s.

Working with a ton of archival footage, as well as new interviews with Brand and some of his contemporaries, including both supporters and detractors, Alvarado and Sussberg have crafted an involving portrait of him. The film not only focuses on his scientific work, but shows his past struggles with depression as well, allowing it to work as an engaging character study. The film is complimented by a good musical score by composer Brian Eno, an admirer of Brand’s who also appears briefly as one of the film’s subjects.

Seen as a visionary by some and an irresponsible mad man by others, Brand is shown to be someone who has always been on the leading edge of science, whether it be environmentalism or computer technology. What We Are As Gods offers is a good introduction to his ideas, that opens a thought-provoking debate about whether or not animals should be brought back from extinction.

We Are As Gods is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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