Director: Edu Hernandez
Writer: Ernesto Diringuer
Running time: 1hr 1min
With any piece of communication, it’s important to know why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for. For example, here at Indy Film Library, we aim to “deliver insightful feedback to independent filmmakers” with our reviews, as well as promoting their work to others who may be interested. We’re writing for people who make films and those who’d like to make films. A love of filmmaking and an understanding of some of its techniques and terminology can be taken for granted. You lot know your onions.
I get the feeling this documentary, THE DOCTOR Franjo Grotenhermen, is also aimed mostly at an audience already familiar with its topic, in this case medicinal cannabis, and its subject, the titular Dr Grotenhermen. Because while some films introduce themselves politely, this one crashes through the front door, already halfway through a conversation. We get a welter of talking heads, coming so thick and fast that it’s almost impossible to process what any of them are saying, before the film manages to calm down and give us a title card. Maybe director Edu Hernandez had seen a Bond movie the night before doing the edit and decided that a brain-scrambling pre-credits scene was the way to go. Suffice to say, it created the impression in this viewer that the film wasn’t about to spoon-feed me and that if I struggled to keep up, it would be my own fault.
Fortunately, once the film gets into its stride, the pacing is much more amenable and all the different elements and voices are handled fairly capably. Crucially, the good doctor is a genial central figure. Grotenhermen is a leading researcher into, and advocate for, medicinal cannabis. Through his writing, the organisations he’s established, and the partnerships he’s forged with industrial producers, he’s helped medicinal cannabis reach a level of acceptance and legality that would have been unthinkable when he first began investigating its potential as a treatment for his own debilitating medical condition some 30 years ago.
The condition, a complex circulatory problem, confines Grotenhermen to bed for much of the time. Although we see him occasionally able to walk short distances, all the interviews are conducted with him lying on his side. It’s a tribute to his charisma that even from this unpromising stance, the doctor is such a compelling and persuasive communicator.
However, although the film gives us a warm insight into Grotenhermen’s life and work, replete with plenty of peers, colleagues and collaborators explaining how important and influential he is, it skates over what seem to me to be some of the key questions. The closing line of the film has Grotenhermen addressing a conference and saying, “There is no other molecule on earth which has such a broad therapeutic potential, such broad pharmacological effects, than THC and perhaps CBD”.
I can’t help feeling that this would have made more sense as a starting point. It could have been a launchpad to discuss that potential and those effects in practical terms. Why are cannabis-based medicines preferable to the alternatives? How do they work? What’s the difference between THC and CBD? Are there any side-effects or downsides? How does industrial hemp differ from commercially-grown medical cannabis and how is that different from something you might grow yourself or buy from an, ahem, independent entrepreneur? One interviewee speaks of the benefit of medicinal cannabis compared to the opioids to which she’d become addicted but this important factor isn’t developed at all. There are passing references to research into pros and cons but nothing very detailed.
My suspicion is that this isn’t a documentary for people who are looking to be educated on this topic. It’s not a form of outreach. Rather it’s aimed at true believers and its purpose is to be a hagiography of their patron saint. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, and it accomplishes it pretty well. But I feel it could have retained much of that function while broadening its scope sufficiently to have more value to outsiders. And, given Grotenhermen’s decades of work spreading awareness of cannabis as a medicinal option, I think it might have been a better reflection of its subject had it done so.