Film Review: I'm Dangerous with Love

This highly personal look at the controversial addiction-ending drug Ibogaine often veers into self-indulgence before becoming an interesting ethno-documentary at the end. But its lack of journalistic objectivity hinders real understanding of the subject.

Dimitri Mugianis, a former punk-rock cult star as front man of the iconoclastic New York City band Leisure Class, has become a prophet of the medicinal and religious-rite drug Ibogaine, principally made from the root bark of the West African iboga plant. A psychoactive hallucinogen, it was declared a U.S. Schedule 1 controlled substance in 1967, and has been illegal in the country since. Though Canada, Mexico and other countries allow it for use in therapeutic clinics to help treat addiction to opiates and other drugs, it remains underground in the U.S., where well-intentioned, self-styled clinicians such as Mugianis make it their mission to crisscross the continent and treat the seemingly endless stream of word-of-mouth individuals asking for their help. He's Dr. Kevorkian, without the death.

The powdery white Ibogaine's promise is that it condenses the typical days-long heroin withdrawal period into about a day, and alleviates the usual horrendous shakes, sweat, vomiting, nausea and general just-kill-me-nowness of going cold turkey. A hallucinogenic dream state is common.

The jury is out on Ibogaine's efficacy and how dangerous it is. "About a dozen people have died trying to stop their drug use with Ibogaine," says filmmaker and narrator Michel Negroponte in his 2009 feature documentary, I’m Dangerous with Love. "But the detox process is always risky and it's not clear that Ibogaine had anything to do with these deaths," he adds. We see one treated addict undergoing what appears to be a seizure, though apparently doctors at the ER where he's taken can't say for sure what caused it; whether they were told about or tested for Ibogaine, the documentary doesn't say.

The energetic and avuncular Mugianis certainly doesn't downplay the risks in the least, and it's clear that for some of the heroin addicts he tries to help—who run the range from working user to walking dead—the treatment is a gamble on par with making it through a complicated surgery. Seeing the bloated, discolored, shot-up legs of one addict, Tink, whose father was an addict and who herself has been using since at least age 14, it's clear that at least some segment of those seeking treatment couldn't be much worse off dead. Sorry, but some of them pretty much say that themselves.

In terms of what facts we get, the bulk of this would make for a fascinating 15-minute segment on a news show. Negroponte—who spent at least three years, presumably on and off, working on this project and accompanying Mugianis to Canada, Mexico and Gabon, West Africa, becoming friends in the process—includes a number of repetitious personal asides and self-indulgent animated detours, the most lengthy of which visualizes some LSD trip he once took.

It doesn't help that in his film's own press kit he concedes, "I'm not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing what’s happening in front of the camera than merely documenting it," which doesn't really make sense since photographing something is documenting it. "I may not include interviews with medical experts about Ibogaine," he pooh-poohs, "but that doesn't mean I don't think the information is important… Being too fact-heavy can weigh down the storytelling…”

No. The facts are the story. Even with Michael Moore's entertaining and character-driven documentaries, his most vociferous critics attack him for a lot of things but never for insufficient facts or factual inaccuracies.

That said, Negroponte winds up his tale well, journeying ambitiously to the heart, the wellspring, of Ibogaine—a village in Gabon where shaman Papa Andre is a griot of the religious rituals that form the dead-serious, anything-but-recreational original point of such hallucinogenic drugs. Abetted by one Tatayo Hugues Obiang Poitevin, described as a Frenchman who's lived in Africa for 36 years and the first European ever initiated into the local, Christian-influenced religion Bwiti, Mugianis himself undergoes a ritual to emerge, a la Dances with Wolves, as Mobengo, meaning "spirit of the tree."

It's clearly a life-altering experience for Mugianis, himself a former heroin user who says he quit five years earlier after a single Ibogaine treatment. Both his girlfriend and Negroponte's own sister-in-law each died of a heroin overdose, the documentary says. The gravity of addiction and the possibility that a blinkered government may be overlooking an important treatment option are both compelling. But without Negroponte offering more facts and context, rather than just a single proselytizer's point of view, we have no genuine grasp of whether Ibogaine, aside from what might be its sobering hallucinogenic impact, is anything more than a powerful placebo.