Denver Post News | “Fantastic Fungi” doc shows growing appetite for mushrooms — magic or otherwise
Director Louie Schwartzberg will premiere the movie in Denver this weekend
By John Wenzel, The Denver Post Sep 19, 2019, 6:00 am
The mushroom boom is here.
It didn’t arrive as quickly, or with as much fanfare, as the Green Rush that followed the statewide legalization of cannabis in 2014. But it’s here.
“It’s certainly drafting off of the expanded awareness that cannabis brought to the market,” said Louie Schwartzberg, the Los Angeles-based director of a new documentary, “Fantastic Fungi,” which explores the world of mushrooms. That includes psilocybin mushrooms, a.k.a. the “magic” or psychedelic ones.
As the first city in the United States to decriminalize the possession and use of psilocybin mushrooms, Denver is taking early steps toward normalizing a drug that’s still federally illegal. But even as places like Oakland, Calif., follow our lead in making mushrooms the lowest law-enforcement priority, big questions still surround the benefits and risks of this powerful drug.
“Fantastic Fungi” is here to answer them. Some of them, anyway.
“I was ahead of the curve when I started this film 13 years ago,” said Schwartzberg, an award-winning director and cinematographer whose work includes the Netflix nature series “Moving Art.” “Who could have predicted that $17 million grant to Johns Hopkins University earlier this month? Or that cities in Colorado and California and Oregon would now be decriminalizing them? The timing is really, really good.”
Appropriately, “Fantastic Fungi” will have its world premiere at Denver’s Sie FilmCenter on Friday, Sept. 20, followed by a screening at the 40th anniversary Aspen Filmfest on Sept. 23, with Schwartzberg in attendance at both events. The decision to launch the film in Colorado was no fluke, as Schwarzberg, too, is drafting off the momentum of Denver’s progressive drug laws.
“I thought it would be cool to work with local groups in Denver that were the pioneers in this movement,” he said, noting that the Sept. 20 premiere is sponsored by Decriminalize Denver, the group that lobbied voters to approve I-301 in May.
Narrated by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, “Fantastic Fungi” covers more than just the growing medical and scientific interest in psilocybin, with dazzling imagery that takes viewers underground and inside earth’s fascinating mycelial networks. These fungal-bacteria structures can consist of a few spores, or miles upon miles of growth, but they all serve to decompose, connect and regenerate diverse plant and animal life across the planet.
It’s recently been the stuff of science fiction — see “Star Trek: Discovery’s” subspace “spore drive” — but research confirms nearly everything that Schwartzberg and his interview subjects assert in “Fungi,” from the ecological dreams of longtime mycologist Paul Stamets to the social and culinary interest of Eugenia Bone, a nature and food writer (and former Denver Post contributor) who sees a world of opportunity in mushrooms.
“There’s a huge subculture of mycophiles, of people who are fascinated with mushrooms,” she says in “Fungi.” “They hunt mushrooms together and they eat mushrooms together, and they’re sort of bloated pleasure-seekers with a scientific bent. Really, my kind of crowd.”
For all its focus on the ways humans use mushrooms, “Fungi” doesn’t necessarily try to turn their squishy, fuzzy realm into a warm and cuddly place. What it does is tap into viewers’ sense of wonder at the hidden complexity around them.
“I’m good at making the invisible visible,” said Schwartzberg, whose 3-D IMAX film “Mysteries of the Unseen World” used slow-motion and time-lapse photography to capture imagery too small or fast for the naked eye. “I enjoy taking people on these journeys through time and scale, and that’s what this film is. It’s a way to show the wisdom and intelligence of nature.”
The opening narration of the documentary speaks of “the pulse of eternal knowledge” and “the oneness … From your first breath to your last, in darkness and in the light, we are the oldest and youngest,” Larson says in her reverent, quasi-spiritual tone. “We are the wisdom of a billion years. We are creation.”
Audiences would be forgiven for rolling their eyes at this broad, touchy-feely language, which has been used lately in describing almost anything that connects or drives us — from beer to subatomic particles to the written word. But the funny thing is, she’s right. It’s a lot for a documentary to take on — telling this complicated and, at times, highly technical story with minimal exposition and loads of illustrative shots of natural processes. But the science backs it up.
“The fungal networks are here to help heal the planet, help heal your body and perhaps, even, shift your consciousness,” Schwartzberg said. “They can clean up the atmosphere. They can clean up an oil spill. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. But there are many entry points for (this subject), whether you’re into natural foods or yoga or psychology or medicine. It’s exciting, because we’re finally starting to move out of the dark ages with it.”
Researchers and advocates of psychedelic drugs, in particular, have been exploring psilocybin as a treatment for anxiety and depression since the mid-20th century. But it wasn’t until earlier this month, as Schwartzberg noted, that Johns Hopkins Medicine revealed its new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, which plans to test compounds such as LSD and psilocybin in treating a range of mental health problems including anorexia, addiction and depression, The New York Times reported.
Author and former Denver Post contributor Eugenia Bone, left, and “Fantastic Fungi” director Louie Schwartzberg in a behind-the-scenes shot from the new documentary. (Provided by Greta Rose Agency)
“(Dr.) Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of ‘inverse PTSD’ — ‘a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods and behavior, and presumably in the brain,'” wrote journalist Michael Pollan (who’s also featured in “Fungi”) in a 2015 New Yorker article dubbed “The Trip Treatment.”
“But what about average people?” Schwartzberg said. “What if you just want to come home, put your kids to bed and chill out for a bit? If you’re micro-dosing (psilocybin), it’s an almost infinitesimal effect on your body, but it might just improve your mood and make you more optimistic. I’d much rather people do that or take a toke (of cannabis) than drink alcohol, which is a harmful depressant.”
As with cannabis, there are concerns from the anti-mushroom camp that people with depression and other mental illnesses can actually be triggered into psychotic episodes by ingesting psilocybin, no matter how small the dose. “Fantastic Fungi” likely won’t sway them into thinking the potential harm of decriminalization is outweighed by its benefits.
“That’s a debate that’s going to continue for awhile, no matter what,” Schwartzberg said. “Should it be given to everybody, or do we need restrictions and very controlled licenses for the distribution of it? I don’t have an answer. But I want this film to work on a level of feeling, not just intellect, so I tried to make it beautiful. It takes you on a journey that’s meant to make you more open-minded. This film could be the catalyst for a movement.”