Review: Burzynski: The Movie, directed by Eric Merola


Burzynski: The Movie, written and Directed by Eric Merola. Released by MEROLA (2010). 1 hour, 45 minutes. MPAA: Unrated.

“Kafkaesque” is a word that has lost much of its potency due to overuse: These days any bizarre situation is likely to be described this way. But if any story today deserves to be likened to the bewildering fiction of Franz Kafka, it is the nonfiction tale of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, a Texas-based doctor who has been waging a single-handed battle with his home state’s medical board, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and federal prosecutors. What makes Dr. Burzynski’s story particularly bewildering is that he is being persecuted not because he is a terrible doctor, but because he may have made one of the most important medical discoveries in history: a treatment for cancer that is safer and more effective than either chemotherapy or radiation.

In Burzynski: The Movie, director Eric Merola details the eponymous doctor’s ongoing struggles to treat his patients with his anticancer drug Antineoplaston A10, which could end the need for chemotherapy and radiation for many forms of cancer. But rather than being lauded and his discovery brought to market where it could help untold millions, Dr. Burzynski has been threatened with professional and financial ruin and the loss of his freedom. What makes the story particularly maddening and infuriating is that those who are trying to destroy him do so while acknowledging that Burzynski is doing no harm and probably a lot of good for his patients.

Director Merola obviously supports Dr. Burzynski, and his film clearly falls into the category of advocacy documentary. Of course, we have seen a plethora of advocacy documentaries over the past decade—notably from Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. They are usually cheeky takes on important issues that are more focused on entertainment, at the expense of their case. But the biggest problem with these recent attempts at advocacy documentary (one of the oldest genres of nonfiction film) is that the filmmakers involved generally proceed to trash their opponents without having first proven their own positions. Although this approach can spark important debate in the marketplace of ideas, these films are seriously flawed—substituting, as they do, non-sequiturs and out-of-context examples for evidence and argument.

Burzynski, however, is the model of what advocacy documentary should be. Although Merola is clearly convinced that Dr. Burzynski is right, he knows that his being convinced does not mean that he can dispense with the need to convince his audience. So Merola spends the first thirty minutes of the film laying out his case for the effectiveness of Burzynski’s treatment, presenting powerful testimony—including archival footage from U.S. congressional hearings—about how antineoplastons have saved individual patients, many of them children, from almost certain suffering and death. One of the most powerful stories is that of a twenty-four-year-old mother of two who, because of Burzynski, was spared radiation therapy at age eleven that would have left her deaf, infertile, and in a vegetative state—and, at best, with only a few months to live. In archival footage, we see the almost immediate, seemingly miraculous effect of antineoplastons on the young patient. More than a decade later, we see her as a vibrant, healthy, cancer-free mother.

But Merola knows that, as powerful as the individual cases are, they amount to inspiring stories of survival, not evidence that Burzynski’s treatment works to a significant extent. Accordingly, Merola surveys the results of Dr. Burzynski’s trials on brain cancer—trials approved and sanctioned by the FDA while it was simultaneously trying to put him in jail—alongside other brain cancer trials using chemotherapy and radiation. The numbers that Merola presents strongly imply that, at least in the treatment of brain cancer, antineoplastons are thirty times more effective than the traditional treatments.

In an era of audiences who are willing to unthinkingly accept a filmmaker’s conclusions, Merola’s tactic—spending nearly a third of the film discussing Dr. Burzynski’s treatment before turning to his battles—is risky. But it is effective precisely because it lays out the case for antineoplastons so convincingly. Audiences will likely have grounds to conclude that Dr. Burzynski has created a worthwhile drug—not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, but one that is saving many more patients than traditional methods and without any of the agonizing side effects. This context having been established, the remaining two-thirds of the film chronicles how a courageous, brilliant doctor is being unjustly persecuted by a government with a vested interest in protecting the status quo because of the enormous fees paid by big pharmaceutical companies to “fast-track” approval of their drugs.

The evidence that Merola presents paints the State of Texas, the FDA, and the federal government as intent on shutting down Dr. Burzynski because he is not working with one of the big pharmaceutical companies. Of course, these agencies cannot shut him down on that basis, so most of the charges levied against him involve claims of fraud or technical violations, and, in at least one case in Texas, the claim that Burzynski broke a “law” that was completely fabricated by the state medical board. It is telling that in several of the cases brought against Dr. Burzynski, the fact that his drug appeared to be effective and, at the very least, caused his patients no harm, was not considered. Perhaps the biggest smoking gun presented by Merola is a memo from a former head of the FDA that makes clear that he would not approve any drug that did not come from Big Pharma. An even more horrific twist late in the film demonstrates the full extent of government cynicism and corruption involved in the Burzynski case.

Merola’s case is measured, balanced, and relentlessly clear. If you walk away from this without being convinced that Dr. Burzynski’s technique is at least worth researching, you probably have not been paying attention. This is a testament to Merola’s clear approach and shows that a well-done advocacy documentary can effectively make a case for a cause without asking audiences to suspend their own judgment.

Merola’s technique is simple—talking heads, highlighted memorandums, archival footage, and the occasional illustration—but the effect is profound: the portrait of a quiet hero who will not give up. Much of the archival testimony plays for several minutes with no quick cutting, additional commentary, or attempts to distort or take things out of context. He even goes so far as to provide footnotes for all of the documents from which he quotes—many of them letters, internal memos, and court testimony. For the sake of brevity, many of these documents are edited, but he shows the entire document on the screen, allowing the viewer, if he so chooses (and is watching the film on DVD), to pause the movie to read the rest of it or look it up online or at his local library.

Understanding Dr. Burzynski’s achievement and grasping the injustice of its being blocked and subverted by the government is certainly important. But equally important is seeing Dr. Burzynski hold up in the face of this injustice. This aspect of the film demands that that it be watched by anyone who finds inspiration in the story of a man withstanding seemingly endless trials and tribulations for the sake of what he believes and values.

Dr. Burzynski is a hero in the best sense of the word. Although he has spent much of his life fighting for his achievement, he has come through his unending persecution unbowed and unbroken. A lesser man would have given in or given up, yet Burzynski remains gentle, just, and compassionate, confident in the knowledge that his treatment may play a significant role in ending the scourge of cancer. Rather than whine that he is being persecuted, Burzynski remains focused on treating patients and curing cancer. He does not complain that he has faced a sentence of hundreds of years in prison. He does not have time to do any of that. He has work to do: to get his drug into clinical trials, to further refine it, and to get it to as many people as possible. His style is straightforward, reasoned, and, like the film, measured, balanced, and scrupulously honest. (He freely admits that further research is needed on antineoplastons.) He is an unsung trailblazer who demands only to be free from any interference to continue his important, potentially lifesaving work.

Although Burzynski: The Movie is a must-see, it does have its weaknesses. For one, the film details how antineoplastons work (essentially they turn off cancer cells) and the drug’s effectiveness, but spends virtually no time describing how the treatment is administered (it appears to be injected or infused). In addition, the relationship between the FDA and big pharmaceutical companies is touched on only briefly, with few details on how the “fast-track” fee system has corrupted both corporations and the FDA and is the likely motivation for Dr. Burzynski’s various prosecutions. A minor quibble is that the sound is not as polished as it could be—a problem, especially given Dr. Burzynski’s thick Polish accent—and the narration is a little smarmy in spots, suggesting the influence of advocate provocateurs such as Michael Moore. However, these concerns do little to undermine Merola’s case and nothing to undermine Dr. Burzynski’s inspirational story.

The film is playing in limited release around the country and is available for purchase through the film’s website (http://www.burzynskimovie.com) and at Amazon.com. According to the director, Netflix has yet to agree to carry the film for rental, but will if a suitable number of Netflix customers “save” the film in their queues. However you ultimately see Burzynski: The Movie, it is well worth the effort.

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