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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 09.03.13] Switzerland documentary

In the late 1930s, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann made a life altering discovery. While studying squill and ergot for possible uses as pharmaceuticals, he synthesized LSD for the first time, a discovery he didn't come back to until the early 1940s. While re-examining his earlier discovery, his fingertips came into contact with some of the substance, causing some powerful effects. Curious, Hofmann tested the substance on himself, purposefully ingesting a small amount of LSD to experience a trip that changed his life, guiding much of the research of his future career.

In The Substance: Albert Hofmann's LSD director Martin Witz begins with Hofmann's first trip and the potential Hofmann and other scientists, namely psychologists, saw for the drug. They saw the mind altering drug as a gateway to the study and perhaps cure of psychological illnesses such as psychosis, a holy grail of sorts that would open up the doors of the mind. Early tests at universities and hospitals saw artists ingest small amounts of the drug and then carefully monitored to gage the effects and the results were spectacular, showing heightened brain activity and test subjects claiming to be me more in touch with their surroundings.

Some time later, the CIA saw potential in the drug as a truth serum and the government performed their own tests on potential uses, ideas that included more than simply a truth serum. It wasn't until the early 60s that LSD found its way out to the public, first in Europe before making its way across the waters to the United States. Witz's documentary tracks the movement of LSD but also its uses, at first for scientific research before leaking out into the general populous and influencing an entire generation.

What's particularly interesting about The Substance is the way in which Witz tells the history of the drug. At the centre of it is an interview with Hofmann conducted before the scientist's 100th birthday, an interview in which he is just as lucid and vehement about the drug's potential as any young researcher. There are interviews with other doctors, some of whom were pioneers in LSD research but the highlight, beyond the Hofmann conversation, is the depth of Witz's archival footage. Interweaved among the talking head footage are all sorts of gems, from early footage of Hofmann in the lab and of military personnel under the influence to video of test subjects in the midst of experiments. It's a fantastic array of footage, all of it culminating into a fascinating documentary that tracks the rise of LSD through both the scientific community and popular culture.

Always in the background is Hofmann, the father of LSD, the scientist who never quite knew what to make of his enfant terrible but who always hoped one of his greatest achievements would one day find its purpose and though The Substance: Albert Hofmann's LSD doesn't find any answers, it provides an entertaining and educational tour through the history of LSD from what it could have been to what could still be.

The Substance: Albert Hofmann's LSD is now available on DVD from Icarus Films.

DVD Extras: A nearly 30 minute interview with director Martin Witz.

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