I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to attend a select theatrical screening of the Israeli film Trip of Compassion, both from a psychological point of view and as a critic attempting to make objective sense of the deep humanitarian issues portrayed on screen. A controversial but powerful film about the use of MDMA (ecstasy, the “love drug”) as a psychotherapy treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Trip of Compassion has been funded by Tim Ferriss pro-bono. Prior to his input, it had only been screened once on Israeli TV — he wanted to ensure its wider international distribution, especially in places where MDMA is illegal and its use in treatment is highly divisive. “Enjoyed” perhaps isn’t the right word, but I really took a lot from this film.
Trip of Compassion
Director: Gil Karni
Release date: March 9, 2019 (USA)
Trip of Compassion follows the story of three PTSD patients in Israel — victims of sexual abuse, kidnapping, and the fallout from a bombing — who undergo monitored psychological treatment in an Israeli clinic, Beer Yaakov mental health centre. Under the influence of the medication, they revisit and reprocess their psychological wounds. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, but at the same time it’s fascinating. Administered by the professional assistance of two therapists over the course of sessions spanning a few weeks, the drug triggers a cerebral reaction in the patient that helps them to replay the trauma and, in the words of a clinical professional, to “give them a second chance.” As a film, it’s certainly a unique experimental tool and shows bravery on the part of the patients to have their deepest issues exposed and clinically examined on screen.
The production crew rely on covert filming in some cases in order to capture footage, as well as talking heads (interviews with both patients and clinicians) and dramatic re-enactments of events. While all participants had agreed to be filmed prior to the making of the documentary, it took a lot of courage, I thought, to have their stories elevated to an international level through this film. The footage of their treatments appears to be largely unedited (and, some might argue, more genuine as a result), though some bias comes in the form of interviews, particularly from director Gil Karni, who is vocal about the benefits of the treatment. This serves to sway the film more into the realm of polemic, although for the most part, bona fide footage is shown, untampered, in an attempt to tell the patients’ stories authentically and encourage the spectator to see the results for themselves.
Trauma and psychological development is something that’s interested me for a while, and I’m currently reading the book The Compassionate Mind by psychologist Paul Gilbert. There are clear similarities between the cerebral processes that Gilbert identifies and the themes of compassion and healing in the film. As a feature that explores the use not only of psychedelics but compassion as a restorative mechanism, I think it’s a really powerful message that painfully few outlets seem to understand in hyper-critical Western societies. I’ll admit that I was sceptical as to the capacity of the drug to bring the closure that patients needed in a safe and controlled way, but owing to the extreme distress they faced, it felt wrong to deny them the search for conclusive therapy.
Trip of Compassion focused on the even larger issue that is PTSD and made it clear from the outset that it’s a disorder that affects millions, yet there’s no known cure. Offering a possible solution, Karni has made it clear that the results of the treatment are profound, and in the ongoing debate about the use of psychedelics for healing, it’s a prevalent discussion. Inevitably, some will have preconceptions about it which means they’ll never agree to the use of psychedelics as a clinical treatment, especially since MDMA is illegal in most countries other than Israel as medication. In response, the film is not overtly suggesting that the drug should be administered internationally, nor is it fully examining the risks associated with its use. It’s a feature that seeks simply to show a few individuals’ experiences of the treatment, instead of telling viewers what to think.
Make no mistake: this is an upsetting film. There are simulations of the harrowing experiences that the patients have endured which makes their pain that much more visceral. Scenes suggesting torture, kidnap and rape are brutally portrayed, and some might level criticism at these re-enactments, commenting that they only augment the melodramatic nature of the procedure. But I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s a film that really deals with extreme human suffering and an attempt to try to remedy the past. For many of the patients, years of treatment had not been able to cure them of nightmares and flashbacks; they talked of the struggle to perform everyday actions or form strong relationships with close friends and family for fear of hurting them. With these stories, told by real patients, the message almost comes across — why shouldn’t they look for a way out of their suffering? In the same way that euthanasia is divisive, with knotty moral and ethical implications for the patient, Trip of Compassion shows that MDMA can have some clinical benefits, if not for everyone.
We seem to travel with patients during their journeys, and it was like nothing I’d seen before: the film space physically gave them an opportunity to revisit their past, returning to the incident of their trauma as they could inhabit the mind and body of their younger selves, and either standing up to people who had abused them or speaking consolingly to themselves in that vulnerable position. It’s a shock to see them in vulnerable positions under the influence of MDMA, but I felt that it enabled proximity to their stories, not held back by a clinical camera gaze. Instead, the footage was as raw and honest as it could possibly be, without having the individuals speak to spectators in person. At the end of his treatment, one patient comments: “My whole life I was preoccupied with being loved —but the solution is in loving.” It’s a powerful realisation and proves, from this patient’s perspective at least, that he can find healing for the issues that have haunted him throughout his lifetime.
Owing to the footage, it wasn’t a polished professional production, but the aim of the film wasn’t entertainment: its purpose was to get across the fundamentals of MDMA and to physically show the healing effects of the drug, rather than telling. And in the same way that mainstream films incur a certain element of belief, it’s a similar setup with these real-life scenarios. Having conversations with the people around me in the screening, we almost felt as if the film acted as a therapy session, so powerful were the stories.
What goes unsaid is the effect of the drug on the 2/10 users who didn’t admit to feeling free from PTSD as a result of treatment or the risks associated with the patients upfront — we are left to consider this independently. Yet Trip of Compassion was useful as a documentary from a journalistic point of view, well-researched, with claims supported by evidence from footage and testimonials. I’ll admit I was incredibly moved by the stories, which meant that the film had achieved its aim.
Trip of Compassion offers individuals an opportunity in touch with their humanity again, helping them to develop self-compassion, and to reconcile with themselves and others at the point of trauma in order to move on. I thought its principles were powerful and one might substitute MDMA for alcohol or anything else used to simulate an ‘out-of-body’ experience — the message remains that victims need to be allowed to resist the place of their deepest pain in order to work out the past and let go. For those who want to explore the film further and find out what it’s all about, Trip of Compassion is available to watch online here.