Eli Kabillio has enjoyed a considerable reputation for a series of award-winning documentaries exploring the outer edges of alternative medicine, including “A Hole in the Head” (the study of drilling holes in the skull for therapeutic value) and “Urine: Good Health” (the study of an elixir which most people would prefer not to consider). Kabillio’s latest film “Saving Sheba” veers into autobiographical, documenting the twin journeys of the filmmaker and his 12-year-old dog Sheba through the worlds of alternative healing. It is perhaps the filmmaker’s finest work to date, an engrossing tale of two companions (one two-legged, one four-legged) seeking a state of physical peace.
Sheba was huskie/border collie mix who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. The diagnosis came when Kabillio was beginning work on a personal documentary in which he was seeking alternative solutions to cure the aches and pains he suffered from years of football and other athleticism. Surprisingly, many of the treatments that Kabillio was seeking out for himself (homeopathy, chiropractic sessions, acupuncture) had equivalent treatments for Sheba. Treating Sheba with this set-up of alternative solutions, coupled with home-cooked meals by the filmmaker’s mother, the canine’s lived a year-and-a-half beyond the initial three-months-to-live diagnosis.
Kabillio, however, did not seem to fare all that well in his search for good health. Some of his treatments seemed more appropriate for a comedy movie than a viable lifestyle. Among the more memorable treatments here are a shiatsu massage, when a tiny Japanese lady beats and knead the bulky Kabillio like he was a piece of dough, and something called gong therapy, where a Willie Nelson look-alike dressed in a Chinese tunic bangs a series of gongs about Kabillio’s head so he can be “bathed in sound waves.”
“Saving Sheba” also addresses some of the more dubious aspects of alternative treatments, especially in sequences involving polarity therapy and kinesiology. I have no idea just what either treatment is supposed to be about since the practitioners cited here ramble about with such pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that they sound like Eros the alien explaining the power of solaronite in “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Kabillio also brings in Dr. Stephen Barrett, a self-appointed “Quackbuster” to cast ridicule on several alternative treatments…although Dr. Barrett’s sneering putdown of homeopathy is so blatantly incorrect that it is somewhat surprising he is not called to task by the filmmaker.
Although technically a documentary, “Saving Sheba” is really a love story in its depiction of the lengths which Kabillio went to keep his beloved dog alive and in good spirits. Kabillio muses whether Sheba responded to the treatments alone or whether their mutual love helped bring her late rally, and he acknowledges they were never closer than during the creation of this film. Whether it is a triumph of pills or the power of love, this is a warm and memorable film which will touch both the heart and mind.