Rak Razam’s ayahuasca-themed film, Aya: Awakenings, was scheduled to premiere at 7 p.m. last night, but at 7:20 p.m., people were still filing into Anthology Film Archives. The audience members, who were all chatting with one another, were operating on their own time. As one woman squeezed her way through the narrow aisle, she stopped to ask a fellow attendee, “Didn’t we meet at the yoga retreat?”
Everyone quieted down once the feature started, having become hypnotized by the movie’s impressive use of special effects. Throughout the film, drawings by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo come to life, raising the bar for all other imagery in psychedelic-based cinema. Adapted from his book, Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey, the film follows Australian journalist Rak Razam on his journey into the Amazonian jungle to document and explore the shamanism associated with the psychoactive brew. Razam does an excellent job of providing the viewer with facts on ayahuasca while also taking them on a visually and sonically pleasing journey as he recounts his own personal experiences with the sacred vine.
The screening was followed by a discussion on shamanic substances. Panelists included ibogaine pioneer Dimitri Mugianis, Vice’s Hamilton Morris, Psychedelic Healing author Dr. Neal Goldsmith, and last-minute addition Brian Murphy, who Razam met earlier in the day at a drum circle in Harlem hosted by Murphy and Mugianis.
Mugianis introduced himself by speaking of his work with iboga, the African root said to treat opiate addicts after just one use. When the audience clapped after Mugianis stated that ibogaine broke his 20-year heroin addiction, he charmingly intervened by saying, “Let me just say something for all the active users out there: give me applause for the 20 years using, that was a lot harder. This shit is easy compared to that.” It was obvious that the former Village Voice cover star enjoyed the film, as he excitedly told Razam, “We’ve been making trippy movies for 50 years now and no one’s ever got it right, but you fucking nailed it!”
The actual discussion started with Dr. Goldsmith explaining how psychedelics are slowly making their way into Western medicine by comparing society’s introduction to them in the 1960s to that of someone freaking out because they were slipped a mickey without knowing it. “And so society freaked out and said, ‘No, you can’t do it anymore. I’m never gonna do it again and you can’t either.’ Over the decades, enthusiasts and scientists have been holding society’s hand, saying, ‘Maybe you should read this and try it again.’ And so now society’s trying it again and it’s coming into society not just through the medical approach, but through the gentle sort of spiritual environment of the ayahuasca ceremony.”
Hamilton Morris, who provided a more straight-on, scientific viewpoint than the rest of the panelists, gave the most intriguing speech of the night. “I have a materialist, or rationalist, or scientific, or naturalist — or whatever word you want to use — take on this whole phenomenon. Which is not to say that I don’t think it’s amazing or powerful or therapeutic, it just means that I’m not going to assign some kind of supernatural significance to certain aspects of the experience.”
The brilliant writer then went on to add, “In the movie, you talk about how ayahuasca is not a drug, it’s a medicine. Those sorts of distinctions are not ones I would make necessarily.”
An audience member prompted Morris for more explanation, to which the science editor replied, “Because it is a drug.” Surprisingly, this was not a sufficient answer for the theatergoer, who then asked Morris to explain what the word “drug” means.
After some back-and-forth on the subject between Morris and Dr. Goldsmith, Morris said, “I don’t think that being a drug is a bad thing. I think culturally we’ve decided that ‘drug’ is a bad word, but scientifically, it’s not a bad word. It’s just an exogenous chemical that’s exerting some effect on your brain. It’s not bad; it’s just a thing that exists. And I think there is such a thing as materialist mysticism and that you don’t need to abandon science to be in awe of reality.”
“In fact,” he added, “I think that science can make reality that much more powerful and that much more interesting to investigate.”
For those who want to take a trip this weekend without having to leave home, the film is now available for purchase here.