Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

And Docfest got high last night.

First up, DIRTY PICTURES, a repeat of the opening night gala, and the Roxie was packed to meet (on film, not in person) the godfather of MDMA. Dr. Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin is a chemist. His lab is in his home in California. He made his way from a 15 year old Harvard student to the Navy to Dow Chemicals (where he created a powerfully potent pesticide) to studying psychedelic drugs. When Dow no longer supported his research, he took his lab home. He didn't invent MDMA (street name Ecstasy, which he hates), that was German chemists who didn't know what they had. Passed off by the Pentagon as a 'love drug' useless for warfare, he rediscovered it and tested it...on himself. Along with hundreds of other drugs--he turned himself into the ultimate lab animal. Along with his wife (who is more into the spiritual aspects of psychedelics) he has maintained his small, cluttered lab (DEA licensed) in his home. The movie focuses on him, and a lot of the history of psychedelic use (MDMA was originally used by psychiatrists as Empathy, with the claim of doing years of therapy in a few hours) as well as other figures in psychedelic research. But the most interesting character (other than Sasha himself) is Bob Sager, a former DEA agent who looks back on his career with a sense of wistful regret. He talks about how all his agents thought they were doing good, but lost their way somewhere. As he's travelling by train, you get the feeling he knows Sasha and has some secret to reveal. The film holds back until the very end when you learn he and Sasha are now old friends, and that he in fact suffered from depression and was treated with MDMA. A well made, entertaining movie that gives both science and drug culture its due. Oh yeah, and in case you're totally clueless, the scenes that take place "somewhere in the desert" were at Burning Man. Sorry if that's supposed to be a secret.

The second show started with the short POT COUNTRY, a peek into Humboldt County. It shows a bit of the history--small logging companies succumbing to big corporate logging and a decline in the industry just at the same time back-to-nature hippies were moving in. The hippies didn't come there to grow pot, but when they found it grew well and there was a market the industry took off. In the 80's, it was a hot spot in the War on Drugs, but since California approved medical marijuana in 1996, it hasn't been as bad. Now (i.e., back in 2010), there's a ballot initiative to legalize commercial growing. And the growers are conflicted. On the one hand, it would be nice to be a little more within the law (it's still a federal crime, of course) but it could/would also open up way more competition and drive prices down. And then enter the most bizarre character of all--the cannabis lobbyist. I swear, you couldn't cast this guy as a lobbyist, he's too much of a stereotype, what with the pressed suit, slick hair, flag lapel pin, cell phone etc. I swear I felt that was a setup. But he's real, and for the record the proposition failed but overproduction led to a price crash anyway. This story continues.

Humboldt county has a lot in common with Northeast Washington, as we see in BACK TO THE GARDEN. It starts in 1988, well after the hippie heyday, when filmmaker Kevin Tomlinson found and interviewed a group of back-to-the-land hippies. At the time, he didn't turn it into a movie (not knowing how it would turn out), but 20 years later seemed like the right time for a 'where are they now?' movie. And the short answer is...they're pretty much all still hippies. Most live off the land (one works for Microsoft but still returns to the land). No one has had an easy life, although no one really says they would give up their self-determined freedom for a little more luxury. Although the filmmakers ideals obviously mirror the subjects, they do a good job of letting the subjects speak for themselves. And for the most part, they're very eloquent. They make their case, but freely admit that sticking to their ideals and lifestyle is not easy and not for everyone (often times it's not for their children). So fair warning, while the movie isn't preachy, if you're turned off by hippies you'll get plenty annoyed. And of course, because it's drug night there's plenty of talk of pot. But what isn't talked about, but revealed by Mr. Tomlinson in the Q&A, is that the inspiration for back-to-nature often came from psychedelic drugs--after their first trip on LSD, peyote, mushrooms, etc. they saw something in nature they hadn't seen before (or had forgotten) and decided to return. Very interesting characters in a fascinating story of idealism.

Total Running Time: 185 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,546

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