The achoque is a critically endangered species of salamander native to Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico. It is noted for its regenerative qualities — it can regrow lost limbs or even organs. This makes it of interest to religious pilgrims, who purchase an extract from the salamander sold by the nuns of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud (“Our Lady of Health”), who have farmed the animals for over 150 years. It has also drawn the attention of the United States military, which dreams of creating soldiers with the same ability to self-heal. The nuns’ achoque population is now greater than that in the wild. The opening scene of A Common Sequence follows fishermen failing to find any as they trawl the lake. The documentary’s title refers to the fundamental DNA script used to write all life on Earth into being. By observing the lake and two other milieus, the film muses on the different ways that humans assess, categorize, understand, and often exploit the natural world.
The achoque have been nearly extirpated from their habitat by invasive species. Unable to get work fishing them, younger Mexicans travel abroad for employment. The film follows them to Prosser, Washington, where they get jobs picking apples. Not far away, researchers at Washington State University are refining a machine-learning algorithm that they hope will help automated robot arms pick apples with 20% greater efficiency, a seemingly negligible improvement that they assert would save the industry millions each year. Further away again, on the lands of the Cheyenne River Sioux, the film visits Native BioData Consortium director Joseph Yracheta, who is partially of P’urépecha descent, like the fishermen of Michoacán. Via video conferences, Yracheta tries to warn audiences of the dangers of genomic patents, of private companies owning the rights to certain sequences of DNA. He is particularly concerned about what these companies would do with Indigenous DNA, given the long history of medical exploitation that Indigenous people have suffered in the US.
Weaving a common thread of indigeneity among these different sites, directors Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser examine how strikingly mundane material can be at the forefront of experimental science. Much of A Common Sequence is about everyday work, inviting the viewer to see the overlaps between fishermen sorting their nets, workers picking fruit in an orchard, nuns tending to salamanders in tanks, and engineers double-checking their numbers. It is at times stunningly beautiful, despite the seemingly banal settings, as in a sequence that shows the lake at night lit only by the fishermen’s headlights. The salamanders drift almost dreamily in their tanks, next to wriggling pods of feed worms. A computer algorithm forms the outline of an apple — but has that really accomplished anything, if the mechanical eye and arm can’t comprehend what an apple really is? Does that matter, so long as it can capably pluck the fruit?
A Common Sequence approaches issues around the diminishing of the biological commons in ways that might seem novel for a documentary. Rather than take a macro view and inundate the audience with facts and figures, it uses its trio of locations to more tangibly and immediately demonstrate how these topics manifest in everyday life. Part of the Science on Screen program at the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, the film exemplifies that festival’s experimental spirit. It’s an odd but often riveting peek into the possible scientific advancements of the future — both wondrous and unnerving.
A Common Sequence makes its US premiere as part of the First Look festival at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35 Ave, Astoria, Queens) on March 18.