by Alan Bisbort
Two years after his graduation, Dan Bailey ’08 found himself leading a group of perfect strangers into the heart of the Amazonian rainforest to save their lives. No, this was not an episode of Lost but the start of a project with Nick Polizzi, his cousin, that resulted in their riveting documentary film The Sacred Science. The film debuted on Oct. 12, 2011 at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco, where it sold out two screenings, then garnered similarly auspicious responses at other festivals before being released for sale on DVD in early 2012.
The Sacred Science documents the attempts by eight people suffering from chronic, and lifethreatening illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and depression to find cures or relief for conditions that mainstream medical methods had failed to deliver. Their destination was an isolated, primitive outpost two hours by boat from Iquitos, Peru, which is surrounded by rainforest and only accessible by plane or boat — the largest such city on the planet. Their “doctors” were indigenous shaman healers who, over several generations, have developed medicines from plants in the surrounding rainforest which they combine with “spiritual disciplines” to affect their cures.
As the film’s poster put it, “Eight people, thirty days, one journey: To find life, they had to face death.”
This is one of the rare occasions when the spin matches the intensity of the filmed experience. There are, in fact, scenes in the film that are surprising, shocking, and moving in equal parts.
“I met the eight patients for the first time in person at the airport in Lima, Peru,” said Bailey, who now lives in New York City. “It was a daunting commitment to make and they were not absolutely certain that it would have a desirable outcome. Once we got upriver to the base camp, some took a look at the primitive conditions… the outhouses, huts, isolation, and were apprehensive, to say the least.” This is not to say that Bailey and Polizzi were not a bit apprehensive themselves. However, they’d done enough preliminary work to trust their instincts and their lifelong close relationship. Though Polizzi is eight years Bailey’s senior, they bonded early. “Over the years, we always talked about having a venture together in the future,” Bailey said.
That “venture” became the “adventure” of The Sacred Science, a journey that began long before the shooting did.
Top left: Shaman Edwin and his son and apprentice Christian on a medicine walk. They spent the day gathering healing plants in the jungle to bring back to the center for the patients; bottom left: Dan Bailey ’08 sitting in the “Big Hut” at night where the staff stayed during the making of the film.; above right: A Shaman from the Madre de Dios river tribe, performing a ceremony.
“About two years ago, Nick threw this idea at me: ‘Dude, we’re going to film shamans… it’ll be so sweet’,” said Bailey, laughing. “You don’t hear the words ‘shaman’ and ‘sweet’ in the same sentence every day. But Nick is really plugged into this whole holistic community so I just went with it.”
Polizzi had, in fact, made two earlier, well received documentary films dealing with similar themes of holistic medicine. One, The Tapping Solution, focused on “meridian tapping,” a form of acupressure and talk therapy, and the other, Simply Raw—Raw for 30 Days, documented the health benefits of prolonged raw-food diets. (Think of it as the organic version of Supersize Me.).
The cousins first had to find “shamans” who were legitimate — a daunting task in a country several thousand miles away with language and cultural barriers and, perhaps needless to add, without any governing board or accreditation agency for shamans. In March 2010, Bailey and Polizzi took a flight down to Peru to explore the possibilities.
“The first task was to find people who weren’t going to swindle us,” Bailey explained. “Everywhere we went we were told, ‘If you want shamans, you really need to talk to Roman.’”
Indeed, Roman Hanis proved to be the film’s salvation as well as its central figure. A Russian-born practitioner of alternative medicine, Hanis came to Peru more than 10 years ago seeking a cure for his Crohn’s disease. Once his symptoms dispersed with the help of shaman healers, he remained in Peru to learn at the feet of his healers. Now himself a legitimate shaman, Hanis is part of a circle of local healers he was willing to introduce to Bailey and Polizzi.
“Getting into the world of shamans is not meant for any random tourist,” said Bailey. “The shamans, including Roman, had to vet us as we had to vet them. They had to see our hearts were in the right place.”
Once they decided on Hanis as a medical coordinator and guide to rainforest culture, Bailey and Polizzi had to find eight people willing to travel to Peru in search of cures. Bailey, Polizzi, and Polizzi’s mother (Bailey’s Aunt Peggy) went through 500 applications, set up a bulletin board and systematically whittled down the possible candidates. Many were weeded out when they heard about the primitive conditions and isolation.
“Many more bowed out when we asked them ‘Are you afraid of spiders and snakes?’” said Bailey, adding that this was not meant to simply spook people. The base camp where The Sacred Science was filmed was so isolated that if someone were bitten they would in all likelihood die before help could arrive.
The final eight were chosen. Polizzi and Bailey went back down to Peru in May 2010 to meet Hanis. And in October 2010, Polizzi, Bailey, an art director, a soundman, and the eight patients arrived for their adventure.
“Had Nick described the whole set up to me and I didn’t know him I would not have been impressed,” said Bailey. “I came into this project as the raging skeptic, but this was no hippie fake-out situation. Even I was changed by the experience. There were some pretty irrefutable benefits to the majority of the patients, and nobody said it was a waste of time after they returned home. Even if the shamans’ cures were total nonsense, which they are not, the mere fact of being detached from all the toxic distractions of consumer culture has benefits. The rainforest is therapeutic just by itself. It’s a healing, calming atmosphere. The stresses I felt were more like a constant voice saying, ‘I am responsible for these eight people.’ But everyone had a way of righting themselves during their stay.”
Above left: Jon Wood, a 69-year-old man from Australia suffering from prostate cancer, makes his morning commute to the showers; top right: Shaman Don Bechin crushes ingredients for a poultice (basically a medicated bandage) being made for Melinda, a patient suffering from breast cancer; bottom right: a small tree frog visits with a patient in one of the dieta huts.
Each of the eight patients was assigned a separate and isolated hut in the rainforest; each hut, in turn, became a kind of stage on which their particular drama could play out.
At the beginning, the most intense drama involved Joel, whose football-player physique shielded a deadly secret — type II diabetes that had resisted all previous efforts to curtail it and had shortened the lives of other members of his family. Though the shaman’s treatments quickly proved effective at lowering his blood sugar level, Joel was hounded by an unforeseen enemy — jungle noise and crawling, slithering creatures — which generated so much fear he was unable to sleep. After much soul-searching he begged out of the month-long commitment and, consulting with the visiting medical staff, was allowed to leave after two weeks. Happily, we later learn that Joel was able to maintain the lower blood sugar level once he got home.
And then there was John, a slight, older Australian whose prickliness was barely concealed behind a veneer of practiced civility. The medical regimen, strict diet, and isolation eventually pushed John toward a breakdown, a potential crisis situation nicely handled by Hanis, who in addition to being a shaman doubled as a sort of unlicensed shrink. John’s distress turned out to be partly due to his prostate cancer but mostly to his lifelong “lone wolf” persona, which had made it difficult to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. After a good weep, John turned the corner. Ultimately, he may have been the patient most assisted by the shamans’ ministration. His PSA readings were the lowest they had ever been and, later, we learned that he, too, was able to keep the readings down once back home.
The most quietly inspiring story belonged to Nicola. Barely in her 50s, she was already near paralyzed by Parkinson’s. But her iron will somehow got her, uncomplainingly, to and from the assigned hut in the rainforest. By month’s end, she’d regained enough movement to take walks without assistance. Her stroll through the forest with Gretchen, an attractive former actress suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, made for genuinely moving cinema not unlike the scene in Awakenings when Oliver Sacks’ patients “awaken” from their decades-long deep freeze. Gretchen’s IBS, too, has its drama — as she comes to terms with the childhood sexual abuse that had made her, she believed, susceptible to chronic illness.
Bailey and Polizzi are both listed as producers on The Sacred Science, which really means they did just about every job imaginable. Polizzi is credited as the director, since it was his idea from the get go. Though they had the small crew, it was their film all the way. “We did the setting up, the shooting and the editing,” he said. “We all became like a unit as events unfolded.”
The month of filming in Peru netted 270 hours of footage, from which a 78-minute film was carved. This may have been the hardest part of the cousins’ adventure.
“Like a lot of fledgling filmmakers, we thought our film would be totally original and free form and awesome but our first version was such a jumble,” said Bailey. “People we showed it to had no idea what was going on.”
However, Bailey then recalled a formula about filmmaking that had been drilled into him by his mentor at Fairfield University, Rev. James Mayzik, S.J., director of the University Media Center.
“Dan took a course here based on a book called Hero’s Journey, which developed from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces,” said Mayzik, who came to Fairfield University in 1995 after completing film school at NYU. “Basically, it shows how storytelling throughout all cultures seem to have this same narrative structure.”
“The closer we got to this [the Fairfield film school’s] formula, the better the film got,” admitted Bailey.
Bailey grew up in Brookfield, Conn., where he showed an early interest in filmmaking.
“In high school I was the kid with the camera,” he recalled. Although his father, Carl Bailey ’75, and uncle, Rich Bailey ’71, are both Fairfield University alumni, Bailey did not at first want to become a “legacy” enrollee. Like a number of his high school friends, he couldn’t wait to get out of Connecticut after graduating. He tried a year at the University of South Carolina, while his friends tried the University of Georgia and University of Tennessee.
“We all came running back to Connecticut for our sophomore years,” he said, laughing. Upon arrival at Fairfield, Bailey was placed in the Ignatian Residential College, led by Fr. Mayzik.
One film project at Fairfield on which Bailey worked, with roommate Tim Comer ’08, was a 10-minute film called All The People “about a progressive rock snob whose favorite band’s music is ruined when they got a number one hit single.” The featured band was Yes. Jon Anderson, the actual leader of the real band Yes, saw the film on YouTube and was impressed.
“He thought it was hilarious, so when he went on tour with the Paul Green School of Rock students, he asked us to film the tour,” said Bailey, who explained that Paul Green is a franchise aimed at gifted children (or, as he put it, “talented nerds”) who learn to play rock songs while working toward actual concert performances. Anderson went on tour with the cream of Paul Green’s crop, which Bailey called, “the best Yes cover band on the planet.”
“Anderson is a consummate professional but a musical eccentric,” he said. “Tim and I shot the tour over our winter break with HD cameras borrowed from the University.”
“The best thing Dan did was his senior capstone project about Yes,” said Fr. Mayzik. “It was a big project and a great success.”
“Fr. Mayzik always told us not to ever expect megahits, that we would likely get right to the edge with projects and they would fall apart and he was right. In fact, if I spoke to a film class today I would say that, number one, nobody cares about you unless you can produce something. And then you will need a lucky break.”
The Sacred Science might be one of those “lucky” breaks, but even if it is not, Bailey has learrned what all humans should value above all other things — their health.
“Modern medicine is not about you taking responsibility for and control of your healing process. It is going to the doctor and saying ‘heal me, give me some pills.’ This film shows that you have to take the reins and take responsibility.”
For more information on the film, go to www.thesacredscience.com.