Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Sacred Science (2011)


Eight people, suffering from eight different 'illnesses' and dissatisfied with Western medicine, trek into the Amazon rainforest to be treated by the shamans there. The shamans prescribe a variety of herbal and other remedies, with mixed results.

The pitch for this documentary is a bit ... misleading. First, let's talk about the 'illnesses'. Some of them are just that--there are three folks with cancer (breast, prostrate, and neuroendochrine), two gals with G.I. issues (I.B.S. and Crohn's), a woman with Parkinson's, and a man with diabetes. But then there's the guy who struggles with alcoholism and depression (it is not clear whether he is clinically, biochemically depressed, or if the depression is merely a side effect of the alcohol abuse). The narrator claims they are each looking for a 'cure', but it is not clear whether, say, the diabetic is hoping to no longer be diabetic at all, or merely looking for a way to manage his symptoms; ditto the woman with Parkinson's. So right off the bat, we have possible issues with definitions.

Then there's the whole 'dissatisfaction with Western remedies' thing. For most of these folks, it is not clear what, if anything, they've tried. In some cases, they freely admit that they've essentially tried ... nothing. So the woman with breast cancer has committed to using only 'natural' remedies. As a result, she is now sporting a particularly nasty looking tumor. The man with prostate cancer tried to cure himself using only diet. The man with neuroendochrine cancer was told that the only possible cure was an expensive medication he would likely need to take for the rest of his life. It is not clear how much a month-long stay in the Amazon rainforest (plus transportation) will set him back, to say nothing of having to import bizarre (and possibly illegal) foreign substances into the U.S. if his condition requires longer-term treatment. The diabetic is at least taking insulin, so there's that. And the Parkinson's patient doesn't like the nasty side effects that come with her meds--and anyway, the medicine doesn't seem to be helping much. We are told nothing about the methods or treatments tried by the G.I. patients or the alcoholic.

At any rate, it's not exactly fair to say that Western medicine has failed these individuals. Many of them have never even given Western medicine a shot. But regardless of the wisdom of their choices, they've decided to entrust themselves to Amazonian shamans for a month, to see what happens.

Now for the results. Some of the folks do seem to experience positive results. It is not entirely clear, however, that these results are, in fact, being caused by the shaman's herbal remedies. I imagine that being stranded in the Amazon for a month likely would force an alcoholic to dry out, and might well get him on his way to sobriety--to say nothing of having to live with people who are, essentially, dying of cancer and generally enduring physical hardships that are, perhaps, a bit more serious than alcoholism. (Not that alcoholism isn't a problem, but come on--it's not Parkinson's, either.)

Similarly, a diabetic forced to adopt an Amazonian diet might well experience an improvement in blood sugar, cholesterol, and the like. The same goes for the woman with I.B.S.--of course a significant change in diet can have serious effects on that condition. And in her case, the rainforest visit forces her to process through some painful experiences in her past, the stress of which could very well be aggravating her condition. (Meanwhile, the breast cancer patient doesn't improve, but is finally convinced to give Western medicine a go, so there's that.)

Not that there's no merit to the Amazonian remedies--it wouldn't surprise me if some of the 'healers' in various cultures have access to plants with chemical and medicinal properties of which the West knows nothing. It's just ... with this particular set of folks, we can't tell what's being caused by the remedies themselves and what's being triggered by the change in lifestyle or diet.

The most promising 'improvements', in my view, are experienced by the Parkinson's patient, who actually gains range of motion and strength, and the prostate cancer patient, who seems to have some improvement according to some test or other (I don't know from prostates).

The film is, oddly enough, largely naturalistic. Despite the (misleading) title, there is very little focus on the 'sacred' here--it's all science, albeit the untapped, unstudied 'science' of the shaman's herbal remedies. The only religious influence we see is provided by a gentleman named Roman, who is not native to the Amazon, but came there to be healed himself years earlier. It is not clear at all that the beliefs he espouses are in any way related to the native beliefs of the shamans--indeed, they seem to be fuzzy and imprecise, more consistent with the modern (and vague) Eastern mysticism. We are told nothing of the shamans' beliefs, though we do occasionally see (and hear) them chanting and praying over their patients. The title is thus a bit of a misnomer.

Don't get me wrong. It's an interesting topic, to be sure, and I am certainly all for finding treatments--even cures--for chronic or terminal conditions, but at the end of the day, it seemed like the movie didn't really go anywhere. No one was really empirically cured--the best case scenario was improved symptom management. Some people found relief from their problems, and that's great--the remedies certainly bear further study. Further scientific study. Because for all we know, they felt better because they couldn't go to bars or eat processed foods and refined sugar all the time. Maybe they felt better because they were away from their stressful lives and jobs and relationships. Who knows?

Granted, I'm not a big documentary buff, but I found the whole thing tremendously underwhelming.

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