I recently had the chance to speak with Ann Armbrecht and Terrence Youk; the filmmakers of the popular documentary film “Numen: The Nature of Plants.” Ann and Terry are getting ready to release a shorter and more concise version of the film, perfectly suited for a broad audience interested in health education, food as medicine, and sustainable medicine. This film is truly a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of health and medicine in the modern world.
Melanie: What inspired you to create Numen? Can you describe how you made the connection between anthropology and herbalism?
Ann: The seeds for the project began many years ago when I was writing up a series of interviews with herbalists that I conducted for UpS. As I tried to capture their words in my own, I began to realize that film would be a much better way to tell the story I was trying to tell and, particularly, for capturing the essence of the plants about which the herbalists spoke. My husband and filmmaker Terry Youk, and I talked about the idea of making a film for many years, but film is an extremely time consuming and expensive medium so we never really seriously considered making one.
I remember quite distinctly the moment that shifted. I was in our living room doing yoga, the tsunami of 2001 had just happened and I couldn’t shake that feeling of how quickly and unexpectedly entire communities and futures could be wiped out. So many more tragedies have happened since then, it seems odd to bring this one up. But in that moment, I realized that if I believed in the message that these herbalists and the plants had to share, if I really believed that film was the best way to capture those messages, then I could make it happen. I could use some of the stock I had inherited from my grandparents: Bristol Meyers and Wyeth, ironically enough, stock I was saving for my children’s future, to instead do something now to help create the future I wanted them to have. And so, with $25,000 of money from the sale of this pharmaceutical stock, Terry and I began flying around the country interviewing doctors, herbalists and others about the healing power of plants.
To back up a bit. I first encountered herbal medicine as a new mother. I found myself drawn to herbal medicine as a simple and inexpensive way to care for my daughter using remedies made from plants I could grow and harvest on my own. I had recently returned from 18 months conducting research in a remote village in Nepal and in herbalism I found a system of healing from my own tradition that embodied the values I most came to appreciate in Nepal: a sense of the sacredness of the earth, a quality of respect and restraint in interactions with the environment, a focus on relationship rather than ownership, and an understanding of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of healing. I was intrigued and so I enrolled in an apprentice program with Rosemary Gladstar at Sage Mountain.
As I learned more about herbal medicine, I, not surprisingly, came to see that it was much more complicated than I imagined at the outset that the values I was most drawn to were not always so evident in practice and that many of them were in fact threatened or being undermined by the commercialization of plants. And so we made Numen to celebrate those values that to me are at the heart of herbal medicine, so that people could understand that herbalism is much, much more than a product on a shelf.
Melanie: Wow, that’s such a beautiful story. I love how the seed money for this project came from the inheritance of your ancestors; that the seeds they planted have blossomed into this powerful film that can reach and inspire so many others. And the irony that it was stocks from pharmaceutical investments that ultimately funded this project is wonderful. I really appreciate how you celebrate and cherish the sacred values of plant medicine in Numen. Since you first began conceiving this film, has this project changed in unexpected ways? Are there developments that you didn’t anticipate?
Ann: This project has changed in so many unexpected ways that we never anticipated at the outset! In terms of content: we started out focusing just on herbal medicine but then we broadened that as we went, especially to include the pervasiveness of environmental toxins in our lives and in the products we consume, to really capture what is at stake.
We’ve had tremendous technological challenges. We lost the entire film right before it was scheduled to screen at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier for a week. And overall, it has taken much, much longer to get to this point than we ever imagined at the outset.
Perhaps because it has taken so long, with this revision, we both feel that we’ve finally captured the essence of what we set out to capture. Terry rediscovered clips, especially of the late Dr. Bill Mitchell talking about how he works with clients that really bring the second part of the film together in a way that expresses how herbalists work with their clients. We’ve created what we think is an invaluable teaching tool – as well as an incredible document. Two of the people we interviewed have passed away and yet in this film we have their voices and their wisdom, gleaned from their many years of working with the plants in their healing practice. I am so grateful to be able to share that and make that available.
Terry: Beyond the technical challenges that Ann mentions, we also were informed and guided in different directions as we interviewed the many gifted and insightful people who appear in the film. Often after an interview we were led to expanded or new topics as well as to other remarkable people. In this way the scope of the story began to grow and necessitated elements we had not anticipated. For example, in the midst of sifting through our first batch of interviewees, especially Kenny Ausubel, I heard an interview with Mark Schapiro on the NPR program Fresh Air. He is the author of EXPOSED – a powerful book on the toxic exposure we all face in our daily lives and I became convinced that we needed to talk in depth about these dangers and the frightening trends of chronic illness in the US. Which in turn led us to highlight allopathic medicine and its use and misuse. That these issues set the context for why finding less toxic alternatives is so important, not for the health of our own bodies but also for the health of the earth. So, it was a journey of discovery.
Melanie: That’s so powerful that the participants of Numen were also the catalysts for determining the direction of the film; that each new piece of wisdom or insight inspired you to investigate a new area that you might not have previously considered. You mention that the film presents a vision of safe, effective, and sustainable medicine, which sounds absolutely wonderful. Can you elaborate on this?
Ann: Good question! Easy to say and difficult to answer succinctly.
Last year our son cut the tendon in his pinky finger and had to have staged reconstructive hand surgery. Not only did this experience trigger my deepest fears as a mother, it made me question everything I had come to learn about the differences between allopathic and alternative medicine. I realized it wasn’t that one was good and the other was bad, that ultimately what matters is the quality of the attention and skill of the practitioner in the moment, not the type of medicine they practice.
And so safe, effective and sustainable, to me, isn’t a static thing. As says in the film, it’s not about allopathic or alternative, it’s about choices, about therapeutic options.
That said, those choices have consequences: side effects, for ourselves and the earth, often those effects are invisible or, as Dr. Martha Herbert says in the film, they read them really fast on the drug commercials.
And so, to me, safe, effective and sustainable medicine means looking carefully at the consequences of the choices we make and choosing the least toxic choice whenever possible. Save the more potent and toxic pharmaceuticals for when we really need them. It behooves all of us to do some research about those consequences – and to do that research before, not in the midst of, a healthcare crisis – so that, as Ed Smith says in the film, we aren’t at the mercy of the marketplace.
And so it starts with education beginning with realizing that we should be asking the same questions about the medicines we ingest that we are asking about our eggs and our coffee and chocolate. I was surprised again and again at screenings of Numen to see that people either ‘got’ the message of the film, or they didn’t. That there was a line between those who were concerned about where their medicine came from – pharmaceutical and herbal – and who would consider the possibility of making their own and those who didn’t.
We see the film, especially this new version, as an introduction that, we hope, can bridge these different worlds and bring the questions being asked of food and other commodities to conversations about medicine: How was the medicine made? By whom? With what consequences? By beginning to unravel those threads, I think we’ll begin to work toward a deeper understanding of the environmental impacts of producing the medicines our nation depends on and, hopefully, begin making more sustainable choices for ourselves and the earth.
Melanie: I can see how this film would challenge many commonly held beliefs about health and medicine, particularly about the legitimacy of herbal medicine. For example, the notion that herbal medicine is either antiquated and inert, or unknown and dangerous. In your opinion, what are the greatest successes and challenges that herbal medicine is currently facing?
Ann: This could maybe be a really long answer, but I’ll be brief. The greatest success of herbal medicine, to me, is that it empowers people to take their healthcare into their own hands. There are so many opportunities across the country, in person and on-line to learn simple ways to care for yourself and your family with plants you can grow in your yard or in a pot on the windowsill – and taking that first step, in turn, is transformative.
The challenge is the commercialization of herbal medicine, which is a huge topic … in making the film we really tried to shift away from herbs as products and instead focus on the relationship with the plants themselves. In the second edition, we have removed the section on the business of herbs, because that world is changing so quickly, companies are being bought out, the sale of New Chapter to Proctor and Gamble happened after we finished the first version and we no longer felt comfortable including that company in our film, for example. FDA regulations are changing, etc. And that world is far more complex than we could cover adequately in a 7-10 minute section in a film.
Melanie: I love how this new version of Numen has a timeless quality to it; all the information and wisdom presented seems like it will be as relevant ten years from now as it is today. Who do you think would benefit the most from viewing this film?
Ann: The first version of the film was widely viewed and well received by herbalists and students of herbal medicine. It served, I think, as a kind of affirmation of the work they were doing, a chance to see their teachers on film, a celebration of what they already knew.
With this new version, we really feel it has the potential to reach beyond those who already know and practice herbal medicine to those who are asking questions about where their food and other products come from but haven’t begun asking hose same questions about where their medicine comes from. Or people interested in integrative medicine but don’t really understand what it offers that is different. Or medical students as an introduction to herbal medicine. Or people concerned about how our healthcare system impacts the environment. Or people wanting to provide their children with safe medicine but don’t know where to begin. It is also suited for gardeners and plant lovers and those concerned about the future we are leaving for our children. Basically just about everyone – which, I know, is not a marketing strategy!
Terry: I echo Ann’s assessment and would add that most everyone can benefit from viewing the film in regards to drawing distinctions from traditional whole plant medicine, alternative practices and mainstream medicine. Our treatment in the film is sort of a primer and is meant to introduce the most appropriate use and obvious misuse of the various modalities that are available to people as they make their healthcare decisions.
Melanie: I’m really excited for people to view this film. It touches on some very pertinent and exciting aspects of herbal medicine, such as consciousness and mindfulness, which are often neglected in discussions on modern herbalism. What was your most surprising insight that you gaining while making this film?
Ann: I don’t know about most surprising… I came to really appreciate the depth and insight that an herb practitioner offers and how, especially with more serious conditions, it is important to go to someone who can really hold that overarching vision for you. That yes, it starts with each of us stepping outside and spending time in nature, getting to know a plant or two or ten. And that is the beginning of the transformation. And yet, if you are really struggling with a serious condition, it is worth not just self-diagnosing and figuring it out on the internet, that that relationship with the herbalist is also very important.
Terry: My most surprising insight came from my interviews with Mark Schaprio, Charlotte Brody and neurologist Martha Herbert. I was unaware of just how pervasive and insidious our toxic exposure really is, which solidified my belief that ecological medicine as a concept and practice is essential for healthcare in the US.
Melanie: In your wildest dreams, what would be the impact of this film on the field of health and medicine?
Ann: I would love for this film to help spur a local medicine movement that is as widespread as the local food movement. That herbal CSAs spring up wherever there are food CSAs, that people begin to see herbal medicine as a way of life, a way of relating to each other and the earth, and not just a product on a shelf. That more and more people take the first step of growing medicinal plants and opening the door to a journey that is absolutely transforming, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The plants do lead us, I really believe that, if we let them. With Numen, my hope is to expose more people to that possibility. What they choose to do next is up to them of course, but our hope is to open a door that perhaps they didn’t even know was there before.
Terry: In my wildest dreams the film would be used in educational settings around the country to encourage people to begin their own journey of discovery for their health and well being.
Melanie: Beautiful! I love it, and I’m going to hold that vision for you. I think educational settings is an absolutely brilliant idea. Thank-you so much for taking the time to share your story with me. I’m so excited for everyone to see this film – it’s a powerful and profound look at the role of herbal medicine in health and healing featuring some of the most talented herbalists, scientists, and practitioners in the industry.
The new version of the documentary film “Numen: The Healing Power of Plants” will be available for purchase on July 1st at numenfilm.com.