by Allan MacInnis on April 18th, 2014 at 4:20 PM

As reported in the Movie Notes section of this week's Straight, Oliver Hockenhull's new documentary on the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs—including LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and ayahuasca—exists in two very different cuts. During a visit to Hockenhull's home in Kits, the Straight spoke to him about both films at some length, but mostly focused on the "long version" of the film, From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines, set to screen at the Vancity Theatre April 29 and May 1. Hockenhull describes this as the more "philosophical" version of the film, for those with some experience of altered states of consciousness.

The background visuals for both films are highly impressive, but it’s the long version that really stands out, with incredibly detailed mandalas, smoke, and other patterns shifting and swirling about the talking heads onscreen. Asked how long it took to complete them, Hockenhull laughed. “It took a long time,” he says. “It was days upon days of rendering. It was long and tedious, but also quite enjoyable, too."

And the backgrounds aren’t merely eye candy, he adds.

“Just as an example, you know the very intense imagery that happens over the Good Friday Experiment sequence?” Hockenhull is here referring to an episode that took place on April 20, 1962, where divinity students, including Martin Luther King’s mentor, Howard Thurman, and the future scholar of comparative religions, Huston Smith, ingested psilocybin, in a study done with the involvement of Timothy Leary. Only seen in the long cut, the film presents an image of a tape recorder playing Thurman’s awe-infused, psychedelicized account of his experience, with swirling mandalas surrounding it.

“It was crucial to me to use that narration because it was such a beautiful lecture that he gives" he says. "And on the big screen it’s quite effective, and surprisingly enough, [the mandalas are] based on schematas of the brain. Basically, there are recent discoveries that suggest it’s a gridlike structure.” (In reference to this, Hockenhull mentions a study reported in Scientific American.)

As impressive as the visuals in the film are, there’s also a striking degree of calm, coherent, cliché-free discussion of the psychedelic experience and its therapeutic applications, for instance from Dr. Stephen Ross, the principal investigator in the Psilocybin Cancer Project at New York University. Ross explains in the film that “I thought the people who would come to us would be biased, that they would be ‘groovy hippies’ or ex-hippies; they would be children of the 1960s; they’d have done a lot of hallucinogens in their youth. That was not the case. Of the seven people we’ve treated so far, six of them have been hallucinogen-naïve—[for instance] women in their 70s that had metastatic ovarian cancer—and just sort of brave individuals who had an enormous amount of distress associated with having cancer, who weren’t biased in any way by these drugs. They were just looking to get out of the suffering they were in, this kind of distress of having a terminal illness and dying.” 

Ross’ admitted initial skepticism and his general tone of serious-mindedness makes it clear that he is anything but a doper trying to legitimatize a favourite pastime; in fact, he said he was quite reluctant, intially, to introduce his patients, already afflicted with considerable anxiety, to experiences that could be in themselves anxiety-producing. Hockenhull—who contacted Ross as part of his extensive research on the film —says that “the beautiful thing about Stephen, for me, anyways, is that he shows that he’s really concerned about his patients, and he didn’t want to take any chances, so he studied it really well before this investigation, before his tests. And I think that showed how willing he is to do whatever is necessary to provide comfort and ease when people are dying, or soon to die.”

This is where the concept of the bardo becomes relevant. “It comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Leary used it as well,” Hockenhull explains, for example, in the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a 1960s classic co-authored with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass).

“When you ingest these chemicals, these rare neurotransmitters, you have the opportunity to experience that moment, if you will, that makes a difference. That used to be the term that Gregory Bateson used. ‘What is needed is a difference that really actually makes a difference.’ The bardo state is this transitionary moment where you can take responsibility for your actions and basically live with it, live with those choices. When you ingest something like ayahuasca—the other term for that is 'the vine of the soul' or 'the vine of the dead,' and it’s really interesting to me, how, in the Shamanistic roots of the substance, in Peru or the Amazon, they use it to tune into the world of the dead, if you will. And the Tibetan tradition, they get into this idea as well.” You create, perhaps, a brain chemistry that approximates a death or near death experience, and “you become cognizant of all of your flaws, all of your glories, and the glory of the world itself.”

Terminal patients who have used psychedelics in controlled, therapeutic settings such as Ross' have almost always reported experiences that helped with anxieties around death and helped them come to terms with their lives. “You get into this mind-state where time is extremely relative, and layers of the grand collective unconscious become not only visible, but transparent to you,” Hockenhull continues. “That’s similar to what the Tibetans call a bardo state, as well. After that experience, no matter what level you go at it, your eyes will be renewed to the beauty of the world, and to the beauty of others, and yourself.”

Hockenhull is happy to see that projects such as The Psilocybin Cancer Project are growing in number, after decades where psychedelic research has been suppressed. “There’s not piles of people” doing this work, “but it’s definitely expanding. And some of the leaders, like David Nutt and the people from Johns Hopkins [University], these people have really high credentials.” Hockenhull blushes slightly. “I didn’t mean to throw a pun there, a really bad pun. But anyways, they do have really good credentials, and they do have a lot of compassion.”

Does Hockenhull consider it brave that the people in his film have come forth to publicize their work, in some cases publicly 'fessing up to their own use of psychedelics? “Oh, absolutely," he says. "At the same time, these things are too important to remain a taboo, and to remain outside intellectual discourse. They’re way too important—socially, culturally, politically, philosophically; in every which way. So the more that we can bring it out, that’s cool with me.”

Throughout the conversation with the Straight, Hockenhull has been wearing a yellow t-shirt with the words “Sputnik 1957” on it. Eventually conversation turns to it. “I’m of the last of the baby boomers, I was born in 1957. I was born the same day the first creature escaped Earth’s atmosphere, Laika. Laika was a dog that the Russians sent into outer space, on one of the Sputnik. November 3rd.” And he was born on that day? “Yeah,” the filmmaker says, laughing. “I’ve made some films about that, because it’s really important. My parents were going to call me Sputnik Number One. They didn’t, unfortunately. That would have been a great punk name.”