From: Witness

Genesis 2.0: The Hunt for the Woolly Mammoth

Mammoths generate multimillion-dollar businesses as scientists race to bring the extinct species back to life.

Editor’s note: This film is available online until January 29, 2021.

A team of researchers excavate an ancient animal carcass in the farthest reaches of the Siberian arctic.

The men chip away at the ice with axes, chisels, and a jackhammer, working their way around the enormous body.

Suddenly, from a chink in the ice, a dark fluid comes dripping out: mammoth blood.

Such a find is the holy grail for hi-tech cloning scientists in countries like Russia, China and the United States who have been desperate to find well-preserved DNA.

They want to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life.

These remote lands are well-traversed by tusk hunters, who make the dangerous sea crossing from their home villages in northern Siberia to the uninhabited New Siberian Islands each summer in search of precious ivory.

It is a gruelling job, as the men spend months away from family and work in cold and muddy conditions, travelling countless kilometres on harsh terrain to find a single tusk.

In Siberian culture, some say lifting the remains of the ancient animal out of the earth is a bad omen, so these discoveries, while full of promise, also bring unease.

Genesis 2.0 journeys into the futuristic world of cloning, gene editing and synthetic biology.


By Christian Frei

Since humanity first emerged, people have alternated between two strategies. We vacillate between reason and legend, rationale and demonisation, logos and myth.

Things get interesting when we are faced with something new – something for which we have no rule of thumb, something that we do not comprehend. The consequence is curiosity or resistance, the desire to understand or to fear.

Genesis 2.0 takes the viewer into an unknown and exotic world, one that has little in common with our own daily life. For a while, we have no idea what these men are looking for. We do not know what drives them or who they are. Slowly, we realise that they are in a kind of gold rush. We learn about their dreams, hopes and fears while observing their mundane reality and struggle for survival.

But once we find our bearings, and get a little more comfortable, we are thrown into an even more unfamiliar and exotic world. All of a sudden, the cloning folks enter the picture. Eventually, we learn about their plans with the mammoth. And again, we alternate between curiosity and resistance, between wanting to understand and wanting to demonise.

This is the central idea behind this film.

It lures viewers into an archaic world and then surprises them with a subject of the future. It deals with legends, myths and taboos and confronts us with our own fear of the unknown. In an interesting way it invites us to get to know and to understand what are seemingly incompatible realms of thought, behaviour and assessment.

All the while, the film follows the mammoth and the people that are somehow connected to it. Their hopes, conflicts and hardships drive the narrative.

It is not the film’s aspiration to dissect future technology – “Synthetic Biology” – or to explain it in its entire complexity. It aspires to create interesting cinematic encounters with very different people, with the mammoth as the common denominator. In the end, it wants to tell a story about our past, present and future – an entertaining and surprising story that inspires us to want to understand the new and unknown.

The film treats all protagonists with the same respect, regardless of their visions and goals, even when their plans and intentions seem absurd and scary or too much like science fiction. The film approaches everything with a curious scepticism. It asks questions and does not condemn. It tries to comprehend the new and the strange without being gullible.

Utopia and dystopia, curiosity and scepticism – these are the main conflicts of our film. And its main drive.


By Maxim Arbugaev

For 15 years of my life, I played professional ice hockey very intensively. When I came to the Islands with my sister Evgenia for the first time, I was 21 years old and had just ended my sports career. Something very important had changed inside me. And when we finally left the Islands, I was a different human being. The energy on the Islands has something catalytic.

While shooting on the Islands, I became part of the mammoth hunters’ “family”. Together we travelled from north to south on our “treasure” hunt, passing hundreds of kilometres of vast, endless tundra. I lived with the hunters as an equal. I was so happy to feel the respect of these men. They welcomed me into their community, and I hope it shows in the footage I shot.

It was such a remote place. One of the things I enjoyed immensely was the notion of being cut off from civilisation. I felt like I was in one of those books I had read, about the first explorers of the New Siberian archipelago centuries ago. They had no communication with the outside world for months and sometimes years. It is not so different today.

Kesha, the head of the hunting group, used a satellite phone. I had one just for emergencies. The hunters were allowed to call their families only on extremely rare occasions. The conversations could only last four to five minutes, just enough to say that they are alive and all is good, or to treasure a birthday or other family event. Those minutes were so precious! Somehow, the Islands were still cut off from the outside world.

The remoteness of the Islands made it difficult to communicate with my cofilmmaker, Christian. My old Iridium satellite phone did not allow me to connect to the internet easily. We exchanged letters, which were read in voiceover in the film. Christian and I shared our thoughts and feelings. I told him what the Islands were doing to me. Christian told me what visits to the labs were doing to him. We agreed to use as little voiceover as necessary and that the film remains mainly observational.

The hunters are the native people of the north, who practice shamanism and believe in spirits of nature. They are very careful and superstitious in their approach to these uninhabited islands. They are only guests here, and spirits are always watching them. The land can be kind to them and let them find the tusks one day, and the next it can be brutal and destroy them. They realise their vulnerability and they are fearful to take the wrong step. The Arctic is a living creature of its own with mighty, incomprehensible powers.

Before the “tusk rush”, these people and their ancestors were hunters and fishermen. They are brought up to only kill the animals they need to feed their family; otherwise the spirits will avenge them for their greed.

This philosophy is applied to the mammoth tusk hunt.

Spira, one of our protagonists, lost his friend on the Islands four years ago. Spira said in his interview: “When I feel that I gathered enough tusks, I stop. I know that I have to pay the price for every tusk, maybe not now, but when I come back home, you never know when it will hit you. Sometimes the price of the tusk is a human life. Sometimes you pay for the tusks with your blood.”