Eric Merola’s documentary concerns Stanislaw Burzynski, the controversial doctor who purportedly developed a significant breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. “Burzynski” sometimes plays more like a dossier of depositions than a film, with its parade of medical records, X-rays, cured patients, talking-head experts and Senate hearing coverage. Instead of crafting a nice-if-it’s-true advocacy piece for alternative medicine, such as “A Beautiful Thing,” Merola has opted for a dramatic expose of the FDA and its incestuous relationship with Big Pharma as it seeks to first discredit, then co-opt Burzynski’s discovery. Docu bows June 4 in New York and Los Angeles.
Merola opens with a police sergeant’s emotional eyewitness account at a Congressional subcommittee hearing. The policeman relates how his 6-year-old daughter was completely cured of an inoperable cancer by Burzynski’s revolutionary nontoxic method, only to eventually die from her earlier exposure to FDA- and AMA-approved levels of radiation.
Merola thus quickly establishes his film’s three main thrusts: the unfair, inequitable array of government and agency forces vs. individuals’ testimonials in the persecution of Burzynski; the efficacy and nontoxicity of Burzynski’s patented discovery in treating aggressive brain tumors; and the terrible, often lethal side effects of treatments by traditional means.
When Burzynski uncovered a hitherto unknown substance in the human body (antineoplastons), he was quick to recognize its importance as a genetic mechanism to reverse several severe types of cancer. The FDA’s stated disinclination to facilitate research by an individual, as opposed to a large company, limited Burzynski to receiving patients in his home state of Texas. Yet despite strict adherence to the law, he was repeatedly hauled before the State Medical Board, which sought, unsuccessfully, to indict him, whereupon the FDA stepped into the fray, convening five separate federal grand juries over the course of a decade, none of which proved any wrongdoing. Indeed, the persecution of Burzynski was so relentless and futile that Congress called for hearings into what was perceived as harassment.
The unfolding scenario displays all the tawdry, nightmarish qualities of a paranoid conspiracy theory. The paucity of doctors willing to defy the FDA (pictures of physicians alongside their recorded statements often substituting for direct interviews) and the film’s general zero-budget look — resulting from the picture’s one-man crew (explanatory diagrams are often simplistic to the point of idiocy) — nearly send “Burzynski” into National Enquirer territory. Interviewees are at pains to look calm, perhaps explained by one doctor’s reference to the fate of the 19th-century physician who opined that washing one’s hands after an autopsy could prevent puerperal fever (he was drummed out of the profession and died in an insane asylum).
Nevertheless, the public nature of Burzynski’s predicament, the avowed sympathy of the media (represented in clips from a variety of sources) and several documented cures in “hopeless” cases grant a degree of legitimacy to the good doctor’s ongoing struggles. Despite its infotainment look, “Burzynski” ultimately proves convincing.