Wound – a short film


Two immigrants recount the changes brought about by their journeys to the U.S., paralleling that of cells migrating in response to a wound.


In 2020, I joined Symbiosis, an annual film competition that pairs six scientists with six filmmakers to conceptualize and produce an original short film in just one week. I was paired with the Mexican-Cuban cinematographer and video artist Luis Gutiérrez Arias. As it was the peak of the pandemic, our collaboration was purely virtual, with Luis staying in California and myself in New York.

That year’s theme, “Crisis through the Lens of Migration”, made me think about both my research and life experiences.

While cells differentiate and diversify during development, their identities become fixed by the time our bodies reach adulthood. However, in times of crisis, cells from adjacent sites have the ability to migrate into an injury site, change their identities, and assimilate into their new homes. For example, when you get a wound in your skin, cells from nearby hair follicles (or pores) move into the wound bed and participate in tissue repair. In this new environment at the skin surface, they adapt their function and eventually transform into bona fide skin cells.

The parallels between cellular and human behaviors are astounding, and to me, it is personally so. As a foreign scholar in the United States (and before, a foreign student in Singapore), I am aware of how much my own history of migration has shaped my identity, much like how the migrating cells I study are shaped by their environment. Luis, being an immigrant himself, resonated with this idea.

Our film “Wound” draws three concepts (below) from wounding at a cellular level, and zooms them out to a personal level through interviews of two immigrants, one from Luis’s home country, Cuba, and one from my own, the Philippines.

  1. WOUND: In a healthy organism, most cells live out their lives staying at home. But under crisis, like in a wound, cells migrate in order to heal the injury. 
  2. PLASTICITY: As certain cells migrate, they acquire the ability to change their identities to that of resident cells. This way, they can perform the cellular functions required in their new homes.  
  3. MEMORY: Cells harbor a memory of their past, encoded as chemical marks in their DNA. As such, migrant cells never really become the same as resident cells.

In the film commentary by Jonathan Galka, a Ph.D. student in the History of Science, he says that “Biology has often been used in a dominating social mode to classify, racialize, or gender bodies. How then can the biology of the body help us rethink cultural and social issues in helpful ways?” This is indeed what we hoped with this short: to use and reimagine science to create awareness on the problems of today’s political landscape.

I hope you enjoy.

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