Dan Bailey ’08 ventured into the rainforest for his film on the shamans of Peru.

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.’”

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