SXSW Review: ‘Dirty Pictures’
Etienne Sauret’s new documentary, largely focused on the life of underground hero Sasha Shulgin and his wife, Ann, is an engrossing film and is the best documentary I’ve seen at the fest so far. For those unfamiliar, Shulgin is the brilliant chemist who discovered the psychedelic effects of MDMA (Street Name: Ecstasy) and countless other home-brewed compounds. Though living life as veritable mad scientists, Shulgin and his wife became cult heroes for their wild commitment to and intelligent discourse on the nature and use of psychedelic substances.
The film also focuses on a handful of other dedicated chemists working within the system to push through the mystique and fear currently shrouding controlled substances. One is an ex-DEA agent, with whom Shulgin has shared a long relationship. Another is a young scientist, unenthused about self-experimentation, who instead works with mice to reveal specific physical characteristics of these substances. Sauret’s very conscious choice to include members of the scientific and law-enforcement community works brilliantly, if not to encourage the obliteration of the drug scheduling system, at least to lend validity to this thriving fringe community. Sasha and Ana’s casual philosophizing about the nature of the human mind, the soul, psychedelic experience, and love are the high points here, and this talk never comes off as misguided hippy-dippy nonsense.
The look of the film of course varies, given some disparate sources, but the original camera-work here is often beautiful–as in walks through Shulgin’s store cabinet, or an iconic shot of Sasha and Ana throned and crowned at Burning man. Rachel Warden’s assured editing work also deserves praise, as the cut of the film has a propulsive energy. Interspersed, unaddressed footage of Burning Man, brewing chemicals, and news footage help to create an unexpected depth to the subject matter. The film is never preachy, and whatever your stance on America’s “War on Drugs,” this film is an astounding and essential peak at some of its main players.
– Emmett Duff