In the spring of 2008, during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon, I met one of the NYU Psilocybin and Terminal Cancer therapists and my entire life changed. Within months he had helped me to find a job as a social worker in New York City and a new chapter in my life began. Four years later the research projects, which have taken place at UCLA, NYU, and Johns Hopkins University, continue to seek funding and new research subjects. A documentary film about the research was recently shot called “The Medicine: Science and Psychedelics.” Considering my personal, albeit random, connection to the project, and considering that I too received tremendous healing from psychedelic plant medicines in the Amazon, I decided to request a sneak preview of the film. I found the documentary to be deeply moving and intellectually provoking.
“The Medicine” chronicles the work of psychedelic therapies with several terminal cancer patients who are given psilocybin as a form of both palliative and “end of life” care, to help cope with the fear of death. The ability of the film maker to capture these delicate moments of deep healing and participant insight was truly amazing. After watching it several times over I decided to sit down with the producer and director of the new documentary, Roslyn Dauber, to ask her some questions about the film and to help promote these important psychedelic research projects.
Adam Elenbaas: Tell us about the film. What’s it about and where did the inspiration come from?
Roslyn Dauber: This feature documentary is about current medical research with psilocybin. We had the most open response and best access to these studies, at UCLA, Johns Hopkins University, and NYU. It’s just what opened up. Documentaries aren’t scripted, so they take on a life of their own. I met Robert J. Barnhart, the executive producer through a friend. He has a young child and was interested in having a kind of legacy documentary done about himself so she could understand him as an adult. So I started poking around. He has a lifelong commitment to this psychedelic research, is a lay leader, and has been crucial, in the early years especially, as a philanthropist. He’s a pretty unassuming person, so as I got to know him better, I said this is a really amazing story. This research is so important in my opinion. And we agreed to go ahead and start shooting. In 2008 I had the incredible honor of having homemade cherry schnapps in Albert Hofmann’s living room. He was 102. He died a few months later. We may have the very last video footage of him. He was such a radiant clear being. And so, it went from there…. That day, and all the people we interviewed at the World Psychedelic Forum in 2008, including Stan Grof, Dennis McKenna, Franz Vollenweider, Kat Harrison and Rick Doblin, keeps me inspired.
Robert J. Barnhart with Albert Hoffman
Before making this documentary had you ever taken a psychedelic?
In the 80’s I had a number of sessions with MDMA. This profoundly affected my life. I think that is why I instantly comprehended the value of psychedelic psychotherapy.
What did you learn from those experiences and how did it shape your path afterward?
You are going to like this one. Have you ever heard of Dr. Muses? He was a mathematician into astrology and had this whole calendar based on Egyptian astrology… to do the substance ritually on a schedule. The idea was that those times were especially auspicious to release difficulties and open our awareness. It’s impossible to answer how it changed my life, because I don’t have another life to compare it too. I feel that I became more sensitive, open, and empathetic. The sessions were spiritual experiences for me, letting me know that there is Spirit we can connect with.
After watching the film it seemed like all of the participants got something similarly profound but difficult to describe. How did the participants respond to you as a film maker and what were their experiences with psilocybin like?
The volunteers were extraordinary. Two of our subjects — Annie Levy and Matt Meza — died shortly after we got to know them, of cancer. They both felt the sessions were of invaluable service them, allowing them to resolve some issues and make peace with their coming deaths. The healthy normal study volunteers at Johns Hopkins University had just as powerful experiences, with gentler futures to look forward to. Sandy, another participant, said it was the most significant spiritual experience she’s ever had, and her life is still unfolding in ways the session guided her to. There is a state of consciousness where words are not adequate, awesome. That is what these volunteers reported.
It’s such important work and so good for people to see how these medicines can be used in constructive, clinical settings. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you made the film?
It is important work. Yes. Right now my greatest fear is not raising the money to finish the flim. We are doing our crowd-funding campaign and although many people donated, we didn’t meet our goal. The intended audience is a wide PBS audience, people not familiar with the medicines, or even people who believed the rhetoric of the War on Drugs.
I will ask you again later how we can donate toward the completion of this film and where the research project is at overall, but next I want to ask you a question about shamanism. After watching the film for as struck as I was by the results I also wondered about the indigenous shamanic context. Some people might criticize that indigenous shamanic practitioners or shamanic training are necessary parts of the therapeutic value of this plant medicine. Have either of you had experience with shamans or shamanic training? How about the researchers/doctors and therapists?
This is a big question. I respect shamanic traditions. I have been very fortunate as a documentary filmmaker to be allowed to witness amazing things. I spent time on second Mesa in Hopi while shooting Broken Rainbow. I’ve been to the ancestral land of the pre-Buddhist Tibetans, the Bonpo, filming ceremonies in monasteries in Tibet built in 1000 AD. I’ve been to Huichol country during their peyote hunts. I have been in ceremonies in the Andes. That said, I’m still a very white pale face. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby talks about this most eloquently and his ideas have been very helpful for me. The point is this feature doc is about psilocybin research in the medical schools. It follows a protocol and addresses the rigors of the Western scientific method. The goal is to make these medicines legal by prescription in this country. The guides are psychologists and psychiatrists. That said, having the pleasure to get to know them, they are all very aware of the pscyhe, the inner workings of the human mind, spiritual experience, ego death. and inner exploration. I think of them as contemporary 21st century shamans in the Western medicine tradition. How do things get translated cross-culturally? I think this is a good question and I think these researchers do a great job with good integrity.
I agree. I’ve met several of the researchers and know that many of them have deep love for and personal experience with shamanic medicine ceremonies and tradition. Next question for you. Where do the psilocybin projects stand today and where can people find more information about them or donate or participate?
Annie’s study was at UCLA (she’s the one in the preview and featured in our film). That study is complete. Current studies are at Johns Hopkins University and NYU.? And yes, they are looking for volunteers. The Heffter Research Institute has all the information about the research.
Wonderful. We’ve attached the film preview at the bottom of this article for people to check it out. So where can folks find more information and where are you guys at with the film itself? You’re still fundraising?
The film isn’t finished yet and that’s why we need help fundraising! People can sign up on our website for updates if they give their email address, ?and donate by going to the fundraising page on the website www.themedicinescienceandpsychedelics.com?. The money will go toward editing — to the editor and sound editing and music editing — color correction and audio mix. We’d like to do one more shoot — with Ram Dass as he has said that his early LSD work led him onto his spiritual path. We’re looking for a celebrity narrator. And some money will be saved for marketing and distribution — we’d like to show it in art houses in all the cities the research is being done in. Any size donation is welcome, as are people’s emails, because in addition to needing the funds, it shows there is interest in the film and makes it easier to find distribution. We already have a great educational distributor, but want to have a theatrical run.
Well here at Reality Sandwich we are big supporters of this kind of research so our readers will be happy to check it out and donate I’m sure! Roslyn, what else are you up to these days? What other films have you worked on in the past and what are you looking forward to?
Right now I’m focused on finishing this film of course. I think it’s very important and has huge potential to educate the public and create awareness that could lead to substantial change around the legality of these medicines. The last docs I’ve done are: One Gay One Straight, about what happens in a marriage when one spouse comes out; Teen-Age Moms — Wyoming, about unwed teenage moms in a program to give them lifeskills in Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Upward & Outward — Scientific Inquiry on the Tibetan Plateau, which explores why the the Himalayas are the fastest rising place on earth geologically. I produced and directed Tara’s Daughters about Tibetan women refugees. We got to interview HH the Dalai Lama about his mother and whether he’ll ever come back as a woman. He said its a possibility…
In development is a series about neuroscience and magic — what neuroscientists can learn about imaging from masters of the sleight of hand. I’d very dearly love to turn the Medicine: Science and Psychedelics into a short series with an episode each on MDMA, LSD, IBOGAINE, AYAHUASCA, PSILOCYBIN, and PEYOTE. I’m really interested in how people get information and how that effects policies made. I worked on Capitol Hill as a science policy analyst and I was a journalism professor. My first professional job in film was as Associate Producer of Broken Rainbow about the Hopi / Navajo land dispute. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Feature Documentary. Because I have done film work with indigenous people I’ve been allowed to witness rituals and well, miracles. Everything I do is about how science and technology effects people’s lives, including medicines. I’m a dzogchen practitioner and on some level believe everything about our human experience is determined by our state of mind.
Truly a privilege to have you sharing with us here at RealitySandwich. We wish you the best of success on your journey and with this important film, “The Medicine: Science and Psychedelics.” Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.