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. . . .