A Conversation with Documentary Filmmakers Caleb Hellerman and Micha Peled: MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD

Independent filmmakers Caleb Hellerman and Micha Peled are co-directing a documentary that will feature PTSD patients who are going through clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. They are currently filming people being treated by the therapy teams conducting MAPS’ multi-site Phase 3 trial. Here’s a recent conversation about their project.

Caleb Hellerman: We’ve been filming for close to a year, and seeing the progress of the first patients has been pretty exciting. I think we’re at a point where we can talk about them a little more.

Micha Peled: Yes, we filmed with a man who suffered childhood abuse from his father. He had PTSD his entire adult life and he’s a grandfather now. And when we met him, he was so deeply troubled, I was sure this guy is never going to get better. But we’ve filmed with him since late last summer, while he went through his MDMA treatment, and were able to document an amazing transformation. He’s on a completely new chapter in his life. You see it with his wife, with his daughters, with his grandkids. He even got promoted to VP of the company where he works, which he attributes to his new focus and having more energy for work. We’ve also been filming with two women who survived rape, among other traumas, and their stories are still unfolding.

Caleb Hellerman: Now we’re really focused on finding a military veteran who’s getting ready to start treatment.

Micha Peled: It’s important to include a vet in the film.

Caleb Hellerman: I know it’s personal for you.

Micha Peled: Yeah, I was interested in PTSD even before I became a filmmaker. I’m a veteran myself. I was in the Israeli Army, and during my military service, just by chance I was assigned to a unit that became a sanitarium for soldiers with PTSD during the Yom Kippur War.

Caleb Hellerman: What was that like?

Micha Peled: It was devastating. I was very moved by these people who yesterday looked like the toughest warriors, and now needed urgent, psychological treatment. That’s what first got me really interested in this whole topic.

Caleb Hellerman: You can’t compare any two people’s suffering, but with soldiers, it’s our own government, our society, who sends them into harm’s way. So we feel like there’s a special responsibility to do right for them when they get back.

Micha Peled: In making this film, I’ve been exposed to the suffering PTSD inflicts through a whole range of traumas, but I can’t help just burning with indignation about our vets. There are almost a million who suffer from PTSD, and there’s a potential cure right here, and yet it’s not available to them. Knowing there are 22 vets committing suicide each day – I don’t know how many of them are related to PTSD, but if there’s one reason why I want to make this film and get this message out to the world, make waves, it’s that.

Caleb Hellerman: We really hope anyone out there who’s reading this, who suffers PTSD, will contact MAPS and apply for the study. [LINK] Of course no one has any obligation to be filmed.

Micha Peled: Let’s explain what we tell people about why they should agree to be in the film.

Caleb Hellerman: Well it’s important to point out, we don’t start by asking people to agree to be filmed. We want to get to know them first, and it’s just as important that they get to know us, and understand what’s involved with being in the film. We talk to many more people than we can ultimately include. But we’ve seen that that a very common motivation for subjects, is a sense of mission to help other people in their shoes. They all found out about the study by seeing it in the news, or maybe in the MAPS Bulletin. If they decide to work with us, they see it as a way of giving back.

Micha Peled: Just to add, we never rush anyone to make a decision. We want people to take their time, and make sure we’ve been able to answer all their questions. We also want to make sure they understand this film is likely to be seen by a large audience, and will help push the envelope to make MDMA treatments available to everyone who needs help.

Caleb Hellerman: We’re aiming to release the film in 2020, around the time Phase 3 is wrapping up, and the FDA gets ready to decide whether to approve this.

Micha Peled: Well, the pace of completion is determined by how quickly we raise the funds. As you know, we got one good grant and some private investors but now we need to raise the next round of financial support.

Caleb Hellerman: Ok, I guess we should get back to work.

Micha Peled: Did you send that last transcript yet? And I’m still waiting for your notes on the last cut of the hiking scene…

To be continued…

We’d like to share a special thank you to the therapists who have worked with our subjects to date: Veronika Gold and Harvey Schwartz in San Francisco, Ray Worthy, and Shari Taylor in New Orleans and Anne Wager, Annie Mithoefer and Michael Mithoefer in Charleston. We’re also grateful to the other therapists and study coordinators, and MAPS staffers too numerous to name, who are making this film possible. We can be reached by email: CuriosityLane5@gmail.com.