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Drug testing is an important part of getting medicine to market. In some cases, these tests can result in the saving of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives, but Off Label tells seven intensely personal stories that call into question whether the costs involved in perfecting those potentially life-saving drugs are worth it.

Looking at the stories of 22-year-old Iraq war veteran, a man who was experimented on while he was in prison; a young couple doing drug studies to pay for their wedding, a bipolar woman who lives in a Bigfoot Museum and takes 18 prescriptions a day, two professional drug guinea pigs, and a mother whose son committed suicide while in a drug trial, the film seeks to shed light on the horrendous impacts pharmaceutical testing and polypharmacy can have.

When taking on a topic this far-reaching and systemic, one usually expects to see something of an expose documentary, in the ilk of Michael Moore or Davis Guggenheim. It’s clear that the filmmakers in this case had neither the finances, nor the protection available to do that. To handle this, they have chosen to make a film almost devoid of statistics and hard factual information, instead focusing on the empirical evidence that drug testing practices are out of control by showcasing the no-less-real stories of seven lives. In addition, they have punctuated the film with interviews with a Pfizer drug representative turned medical anthropologist named Michael Oldani who contextualizes the corporate side with stories about his own work in the industry.

One piece of the off label puzzle the film doesn’t address at all is addiction. When drugs like ativan lead to addiction, prescribing them for other purposes can only increase potential problems with dependence.

The film is very dark, but filled with irony and punctuated with moments of comedy, something necessary to lighten the otherwise unbearably dark material, so just remember that in those moments it’s okay to laugh. Off Label makes its point subtly and serves as an excellent place from which to create awareness and discussion.

Off Label screens as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 9:15 pm. Check the festival website for details and tickets.

(One quick warning to those easily upset: There is some grisly and disturbing footage from the Iraq war in this film things you would never see on the evening news. While this reviewer understands the choice the filmmakers made in including it, the overly gruesome nature of the footage overshadows some of the points they are attempting to make in those moments. This isn’t a reason to not see the film, but it is a reason to avert your eyes when those scenes come up.)

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