Neurons to Nirvana: A Great Filmmaker, Oliver Hockenhull

By Katja De Bock
Photos: Noriko Nasu-Tidball

Travelling between international film festivals in Vancouver, Montreal and New York, Oliver Hockenhull’s independently funded documentary From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines made a pit stop in Kerrisdale and sparked a debate about the pros and cons of psychedelic drugs.

From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines is an eye-popping feature documentary about the resurgence of psychedelics as medicine. The film explores powerful psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca by speaking with scientists, (scientific) users and shamans. The executive producers of the director’s cut are Mark Achbar (The Corporation), Betsy Carson and Jon Schultz.

Interestingly, there are two versions of the film. A 68-minute version, Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines is an advocacy film making the plea for more research into substances that have been used for thousands of years. The film is available online for a fee of US $15. A DVD for US $25 includes additional interviews.

However, festivalgoers and conference delegates are treated to the 108-minute director’s cut The Great Medicines, which has a more experimental format. Hockenhull travelled to conferences to speak with the leading experts in the field.

His main motivation to make the film was as a means to educate about the power of these medicines to relieve suffering.

“Both films are not so much about drugs but about the possibilities inherent in consciousness itself.

Banned worldwide from research labs for nearly 35 years, psychedelics are again becoming the focus of serious scientific study. Researchers in several centers, including John Hopkins and the University of California, are conducting clinical trial to treat a range of afflictions: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addictions, and the psychological stresses suffered by late-stage terminal cancer patients. The initial results of all these studies is remarkable.

Outside the research centers, a growing population is embarking on psychic adventures using all manner of exotic substances natural and synthetic, illegal and not-yet-illegal. Experimenters and clients of licensed therapists use these underground drugs not as escape routes, nor as addictive crutches, but in a quest for transformation, mental health, creativity, intellectual and spiritual enhancement and insight.”

Hockenhull did not film in the amazons, but instead relies on anthropologist Jeremy Narby, who spent several years living with the Ashaninca in the Peruvian Amazon. An experience with ayahuasca during his research inspired his first book and his recounts of the experience in Hockenhull’s film are fascinating.
One of the most interesting experts is Countess Amanda Feilding, who experimented with LSD and has founded the Beckley Foundation with the intention to help develop policies that are evidence-based and rational. Hockenhull managed to capture the secrecy and magic of her research by adding her voice-over to film reels of the Alice-in-Wonderland-style labyrinth she created in the garden of her British castle.

Another prominent expert is Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-born Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction and is a regular columnist for the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail.

A variety of visual effects help to illustrate the experts’ explanations of methods and results. One of most intriguing techniques is to allow the interviewees speak straight into the camera and thus address the audience directly. Hockenhull was inspired by the Interrotron, an ingenious bit of camera-rig attributed to documentary maker Errol Morris (The Fog of war). The device consists of a two-way mirror mounted to a video camera in front of the subject as well as the director, enabling eye contact between them.

Though Hockenhull admits the shadow side of the psychedelic experience – being confronted with your own darkness – is underexposed in the film, he says he was most impressed by the experts he interviewed. They are all not just knowledgeable, but also compassionate people, who work hard, because they are convinced of the beneficial effects of psychedelics, Hockenhull says.

Next theatrical screenings of the film include the Northwest Filmmakers Festival in Portland, Oregon on November 14 and the Vancity Theatre in January 2014.

You can gift the film to other people via social networking sites by going to this link:

You can find out more about the other version by going to Oliver’s site

 Oliver with his beautiful partner, Paulina Nelega!