Monday, April 01, 2019

How my DNA literally inspired innovatory storytelling

When they ran the tests, for a moment time stood still. Did it work? The data was a series of dark dashes of varying shades — a sort of morse code internalised, fixed within us. The government finally relented. 

It’s 1985, the first ever practical use of DNA genetic fingerprinting in the world. The tests would change the course of my family’s life, and mine. 

For two years we’d battled with the home office aided by a local law centre for whom we will be eternally indebted. A mix up at the airport when our youngest brother was coming back from Ghana would result in a protracted maternal legal case. Andrew, then a teenager had called mum “auntie” arriving at the airport; a term of endearment for Ghanaians. 

He hadn’t seen mum for many years since we’d all been sent to Ghana to live in the 1970s. Shy and withdrawn, his response was redolent too of his predicament. He knew who mum was but more from fading memory so called her the term that came to mind. Immigration didn’t get it.Two years dragged on. Detention centres, visits, and home temporarily. 

Immigration did get it after geneticist Dr Alec Jeffries from Leicester University served up his pioneering evidence. It would be the first practical use of DNA fingerprinting and it proved unequivocally the link between all the siblings. The odds? One in some billion. The landmark test case Sarbah Vs Home Office which involved an exhaustive odyssey to prove one’s identity, had finally ended. We won. DNA won. Science won. And unknown to me then innovatory storytelling had won.

Science and Art
Storytellers have a aphorism: “The world is too important to be left to journalists”. Journalism is seen as the exemplar for trading much needed information to make sense of the world, supported by a trillion dollar industry. Funny that when you consider modern print journalism is about 120 years old, radio about 100 and television around 70. 

Our story had been on BBC national Television News. The reporter was John Harrison, who would later become the BBC’s South Africa correspondent. We’d been on the most popular BBC magazine programme Esther Rantzen’s This Life which drew viewing audiences in the double figure millions. We’d been in the newspapers. And yet it was another form of data that solved the problem. 

Whilst each piece of reportage exposed parts of the story and the hidden absurdity; the photos we had proved we were siblings etc, the story forms also revealed shortcomings. That would stick with me. It has stuck with me. 

Case done, I could settle down full-time to my studies and pursued an Applied Chemistry degree in Leicester which shaped the following, and there’s a reason why I’m profiling this for later: 

  1. Take a hypothesis (an idea) based on substantiated theory. A theory is more than just a hunch. 
  2. Test it through various assumptions and parameters. 
  3. Evaluating and document the results to discover whether they align with the initial theory. 
  4. If not, try again by altering some of the test’s framework and rechecking theoretical claims. 
  5. If it fails again, it may be useful in providing data nonetheless, otherwise if the test proves commercially viable (prototype) take steps to capitalise on it. 

My Chemistry note books from my Applied Chemistry Degree in Leicester 1988 Bythe time I’d hit my second year in uni in 1988 I wanted to become a journalist, remembering the BBC reporter at our house. By combining my science understanding with the DNA experience I sought a home. BBC Radio Leicester would take me on a freelancer. 

My first report was on a new illness, AIDS, sweeping the US that was said to have originated from Africa. A professor and a pundit were almost trading blows during the interview. Couple of years later doing my postgrad in journalism in Falmouth, I would create a 40-min radio documentary on genetic fingerprinting interviewing the philosopher Baroness Warnock she recently died) and finally meet Dr Alec Jeffries whereby after interviewing him I thanked him. He drew a blank. I had to explain. It was a moment for both of us. 

DNA and storytelling
At this point in proclaiming how my DNA literally inspired innovative storytelling, I could talk about whether my DNA revealed signs of creativity, or that built into my genes, or otherwise Junk DNA that still baffles scientists, was my programme to tackle life — indeed the resilience and determination to want to become a journalist, but no that didn’t happen. 

And our DNA only reveals part of the answer about who we are, our environment and external influences too shape our being. Science architects an approach to finding results to problems. That combined with my knowledge of Dr Jeffries’ work, and that the fingerprinting process was about evidence gathering, which today you might easily call data journalism, proved a powerful elixir. 

Another aphorism, “Data persuades but storytelling inspires”. Who are we? And how do 23 pairs of chromosomes in 4-base pairs of DNA frame us? My parents come from Ghana, where I spent 8 years of my teens. I grew up being looked after by foster parents, who wanted to adopt me. My late grandmother is German, arriving with her father to Mina (Elmina) as settlers from Europe’s slave trade. I met her once — a slight woman, who spoke little English. And my dad was a fierce Ashanti. 

Questions like these set purpose in life’s petri dish. Over the years many extraordinary things have happened influenced by events of the past. Remember that saying journalism is too important… and that data persuades... In 2005, jaded by mainstream media’s narrative and having learnt action scripting in Flash and HTML/CSS I built a website which would win one of the US’s major prizes for innovation in journalism. — David’s award winning website 

Some years later storytelling, culture, history, behaviour, economics, journalism and tech would fold up into a PhD. Stories inspire… but how do they do that? a kaleidoscope of styles and form were stripped and rebuilt. I would call the process and practice cinema journalism, paying homage to the Cinéma vérit/ Direct Cinema pioneers of the 1960s, such as Robert Drew, whom I would get to speak to. A film I made with this approach would net an international award. 

Cinema is a cultural construct influenced by literary and social issues. Author Jerome Silbergeld writing about chinese contemporary cinema says it’s: rested not on a simple aesthetic of good looks but rather on the ability of such works to communicate deeply and richly to create and effectively interrelate image and text to engage subject and context to artistically and convincingly raise complex social and philosophical issues. 

A film like Chen Kaige’s 1984 Yellow Earth may not be the commercial cup of tea for an Indian audiences, just as G. P. Sippy Sholay (which I saw more than 30 years ago) would be for US audiences. Or Med Hondo’s Soleil O could be at odds to mass British audiences. It tangentially brings to modern life James Walvin’s Black Ivory — history of Slavery. And amongst US audiences Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is replete with cultural symbolism, you could easily miss. Somewhere in the engineering feat of television news journalism, nuances and culture are more often than not jettisoned. 

Factual Cinema is the original moving image form towards storytelling and its collocation with journalism or documentary provides huge potential to see blind spots in problem solving. Problem solving is key here. What’s more cinema journalism practitioners, I have come to know, operate much like their fictional counterparts. 

In storytelling everything and anything is deployed to articulate meaning within the frame and the story at large. For instance, that drone shot for that establisher, data display as in The Big Short, or The Kingdom’s opening to relay facts, mobile phones if you’re searching for a certain intimacy, powerful photography embracing cinematographer and design principles for the mise en scène and the unfolding narrative. And the approach? You may have recognised the science procedures earlier and its identical framework to design thinking, which has become de rigeur in hackathons and design approaches. 

As an expression of the science/ DNA influence on me, a couple of years ago, working with a team I headed back into the lab, a storytelling one where, just like like digital start ups, agility, fluidity, entrepreneurial and creative skills is the emphasis. is the norm with an onus on . Learning to understand failure and reframe questions (see no. 4 above) is all part of the mix. 

Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new // if you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it, says Ed Catmull, President of Pixar. 

The extension of the LAB approach places an emphasis on enterprise, working collaboratively with industry, third parties and competing commercially. It’s Science meets Art meets storytelling. And from it we can provide in-depth research to practical and creative ideas on in problem solving within society. Heavens knows we face a few, but if you’re a co-creator or collaborator, I would love to hear from you. All because of that single strand of DNA.