If you really, really wanted to, you could probably find ayahuasca right here in Brooklyn. We know you’d be “asking for a friend” and everything, but just keep in mind that artist Melanie Bonajo didn’t seem to have any trouble for her film on urban shamanism, Night Soil, and there’s at least one ayahuasquero – a spirit guide responsible for serving the hallucinogenic brew – based in Bushwick, a neighborhood where a certain “mixed-use community space” (that may or may not still exist) hosted ayahuasca ceremonies recently. Still, it’s not like you can approach your neighborhood drug dealer to hook you up with some of that especially potent jungle juice (one part Banisteriopsis caapi vine, one part Psychotria viridis leaves).
Thankfully, with the recent premiere of Icaros: a Vision at Tribeca Film Festival, we can satisfy our ayahuas-curiosity from a safe distance while getting a good look at both the indigenous tradition of ayahuasca tripping and what happens when Western ninnies leave behind their workout routines and compulsive internet consumption and start getting real.
For many obvious reasons, ayahuasca hasn’t been commodified in the same way that other, even closely-related psychedelic drugs (LSD, psilocybin) have. Even in light of the recent, explosive revival in serious psychedelic research, ayahuasca (meaning, roughly “the vine of death,” among other things) has maintained its vibe of exotic inaccessibility. It still seems relatively confined to the jungle scenery and indigenous communities where it originated, probably owing to the fact that it’s not exactly Coachella party favor material. (Plus, it makes you vom.) As most people who know a thing or two about ayahuasca will tell you, the only way to experience it properly is under the supervision of a traditional shaman, which requires that you either make the trip to a far-flung region of Peru, or stay right where you are and put your trust in some day-raving, dashiki-wearing, dreadlocked white dude named Flower, who’s got a great veggie burger recipe and a collection of bamboo puke buckets.
There’s no denying that, in some ways, ayahuasca is becoming more visible in the West than ever before. With the proliferation of urban shamans and ayahuasca tourism, most of us have at least read about someone who glugged the stuff. As Night Soil demonstrates, adapting ayahuasca practices to big-city life faces some inherent translation problems that no one has quite figured out how to clear up without looking at least sorta silly in the process.
Of course, there’s the risk that, as Westerners get better acquainted with the indigenous tradition (not without some serious bumps along the way), prospectors might see the opportunity to try and market it as a full-blown lifestyle trend, watering it down to fit inside a compostable bottle and sell it as the next acai-berry superfood detox that promises ten more years of wrinkle-free existence. The Cut already declared, way back in 2014, that “ayahuasca is the new juice cleanse.” Shudder.
So, at first glance, Icaros: A Vision might seem in danger of being on the wrong side of the wellness industrial complex. The film, based on a true-ish story, starts out by following a very blonde American woman named Angelina (Ana Cecilia Stieglitz) on her trip to an ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian jungle– with her Apple products, prescription drugs, and portable sauna in tow. It’s almost too easy to cringe at her anxious mannerisms, her rainbow of pained expressions as she gets used to roughing it at an actually rather nice glamping situation in the not-so-deep jungle. Above all, she has a difficult time adjusting to ayahuasca hallucinations, which will remain just that (as opposed to “visions”) until she can learn to chill the hell out. But don’t worry, the film isn’t about Angelina’s pores disappearing, as you’ll find out, instead it’s about ayahuasca’s ability to make “susto” or the “disease of fear” disappear.
We spoke with one-half of the filmmaking team, the New York City-based writer and director Matteo Norzi (originally from Uruguay), who was inspired to create Icaros after his own 2010 trip to an ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian Amazon. In fact, the film is shot at the very same resort, which is run by an indigenous group called the Shipibo Conibo. Norzi’s partner in filmmaking, Leonor Caraballo (Argentinian-born and NYC-based) who co-wrote and directed Icaros, was also a guest at the retreat. She died from cancer in early 2015, prior to finishing the film.
“Our background is in contemporary art, and we were both lost in a bit of a mid-life crisis,” Norzi recalled. “Then we literally find ourselves in the jungle.” The two connected over ayahuasca shamanism and the profound experiences they had at the retreat, a place that Norzi described as “something like an international Club Med in the middle of the jungle.” The film is set on a rustic, but fairly settled sandy jungle compound scattered with plain, open-air wooden structures with little more than mosquito nets, a bed, and communal showers for amenities.
Guests socialize amongst themselves, but otherwise there’s little else in the way of entertainment. Each night, however, the ayahuasca ceremonies are held, and the forest becomes an echo chamber of natural sounds– all buzzing, hissing, howling, screeching, flapping, buggy vibrato coming from every direction. Icaros pays special attention to the aural sense and how heightened it feels when you’re inundated with such thick, creaturely density. Strangely, the film gets away without a score of any kind. The only music throughout the film are the icaros, the ritual healing songs performed by the shamans.
During the nighttime ceremonies, the guests gather in a circular hut, where the shaman calls them up, and one-by-one feeds them their prescribed dose of freaky brew. As they begin to hallucinate, the “passengers,” as the shamans refer to them, turn into serious barf machines and have to be looked after to varying degrees, and occasionally guided through the experience by way of icaros, or songs, which are an essential part of the healing process. The elder shaman, Guillermo Arévalo (who makes his acting debut playing himself in the film) recognizes Angelina as being in need of special attention, and tells his grandson (played by Arturo Izquierdo, another IRL shaman) that she is “covered in the energy of the dead.”
While it was career problems that led Norzi to the retreat, as a cancer survivor Caraballo was finding it hard to get on with her life. “I was just not happy,” Norzi recalled. “Leonor, at the time, she was clear from any kind of cancer, which she’d had three or four years before. So it was in the back of her mind, a little bit of a fear of death.” While a few people qualified as “day-trippers,” and were only there for a short, intense experience, most of the retreats-goers sought out ayahuasca shamanism for its healing properties.
The idea is that through stuff like ego loss, divine visions, and feeling the interconnectedness of all beings, people can better place things in perspective. As with many people who have taken ayahuasca, Norzi swears the stuff is remarkably powerful compared to other substances. “Ayahuasca is strong,” he said. “Personally, I’ve never tried LSD. I tried magic mushrooms, and ayahuasca is so different in the sense that you have this single kind of vision.”
Guests at the retreat suffered from heavy issues, things that took months to fully grapple with. A character in the film, Francois, is told by the Shipibo shamans, it will take three months of ayahuasca tripping “in order to destroy the energy of addiction.” During private consultations, each guest is reminded to focus on a “single intention” for the ayahuasca to work.
“People go for all kinds of reasons,” Norzi explained. “They go to solve problems they don’t otherwise know how to solve like eating disorders, dependency on drugs and alcohol, end-of-life anxiety– serious subjects.” (As Hamilton Morris, aka Vice’s psychoactive garbage disposal at-large, has said, ayahuasca “is not a fun substance.”)
Nevertheless, Norzi described that first retreat as a “life-changing” experience. “Leonor and I, we left every other project behind and started working on a script,” he recalled. The feature film (the first for both filmmakers) was always focused on ayahuasca, but the major impetus was to compare the Western and Shipibo Conibo concepts of “vision.” The filmmakers spent years working with the Shipibo shamans, adapting their concepts of ayahuasca and spiritual healing into the script.
Aside from the Western characters who are portrayed by actors, “everybody else is playing themselves,” Norzi explained. “They’re all artists, because shamans are performers. Women in the Shipibo community are all painters and pottery makers. So it’s been a collaboration, a collaboration between a group of artists.” Shooting was pretty taxing for the cast, and not just because of the rustic location where actors spent six weeks isolated from the outside world, without internet, hot water, or reliable phone service.
“Obviously we were not on ayahuasca when we were working during the day, but the shooting schedule was designed around two real ceremonies and the full moon ritual. The actors were invited to drink ayahuasca,” Norzi said. “It was a bit of an experiment, we wanted to see if ayahuasca could be a tool to find emotions and fear and feelings from which the actors could build characters. And I think it worked.”
There is something poetic and searching about the way the actors drift through scenes. Something is slightly off about how the film moves, as if time is governed by psychedelic law rather than 60-second increments. Still, Icaros is rather realistic about ayahuasca– there’s not purported “magic” happening, and the film acknowledges that the stuff is not a miraculous cure-all, and it might not work for everyone. Some guests seem to ease into the process without much struggle (uh, I get the feeling these are definitely the same people who can backflip into crow pose on the first day of intro to yoga). Others, like Leonardo (Filippo Timi), an actor struggling to overcome a nervous stutter, spend weeks dutifully gargling down psychedelic loose juice and munching on ants to no avail. “With ayahuasca, if you deserve it, you can pass from dreams to reality without leaving the dream,” Angelina discovers, but only after some seriously mind-shattering experiences.
What happens in the film was largely dictated by Norzi and Caraballo’s experiences. “The first part of the script was written in the happiest days of our life– we were free, journeying around Peru, which is a fantastic country,” the filmmaker recalled. But suddenly everything changed. “Later on, when we were on a location-scouting trip and the script was almost finished, Leonor broke a rib.” After returning to the States, doctors informed her that the cancer had returned in a particularly aggressive form. “And that’s when we introduced the character Angelina,” Norzi explained. “So the second part of the script was written in the hospital waiting rooms of New York while Leonor was trying to do any kind of treatment to extend her life.”
After shooting was complete, Leonor passed away just as they were entering the post-production process. “Everything changed– it became her afterlife, this film,” Norzi explained.
It isn’t apparent immediately, but the character Angelina is also dying of cancer. Her early ayahuasca trips are haunted by distorted MRI scans, images of cancerous cells and tumors that expand, spread, and multiply. But it’s Angelina’s special connection with Arturo, the younger shaman, that helps her benefit from ayahuasca and find peace with her fear of death. “The film doesn’t say obviously that ayahuasca is a curing tool, but it focuses on the idea that healing is different from curing,” Norzi said. “Sometimes the problem is to enjoy the time that you have left, basically,”
By the end of the film, Angelina is wearing a traditional garment embroidered by the Shipibo women. She’s sprawled out, reading a book on shamanism over a similarly patterned blanket, nursing a fresh tattoo that had been hand-poked onto her chest for “protection.” There’s a little village girl at her side smearing red berry juice on her face. I scream laughed at this scene and thought– now that, ladies and gentleman, is a successful juice cleanse.
But jokes aside, what makes Icaros so fascinating is that it’s a two-sided account, one that examines not just how two worlds collide, but how they interact and learn from one another. “The blonde woman is a foreigner, but she’s also local within the mythology of the Amazon,” Norzi explained, referring to Angelina. “The Shipibo have all these tales about pink dolphins, but also the blonde woman, so behind our script, there’s this discovery of mythology.”
The film boldly risks, then deftly avoids the long list of possible pitfalls including paternalism, blatant cultural appropriation, exoticism, preachiness, and mythologizing of the “noble savage”– there are no claims to superiority, no declarations of inferiority, not even promises to reject one’s own culture and fully embrace another one.
While many of the hallucination sequences are inspired by a Western obsession with the screen, the basis for these images can also be traced to the shaman’s own descriptions of ayahuasca. “We picked some devices that the West uses for vision– the video game, the camera, the television, the optical apparatus, the MRI machine,” Norzi explained. “But Shamans say that ayahuasca is a ‘spiritual X-ray machine,’ that it’s the ‘television of the forest.'”
In general, the imagined landscapes and lucid dreamlike images that stand in for the ayahuasca trips are refreshing in their weirdness and originality. Only one of Angelina’s hallucination sequences (when she descends into a video game world) I could say looked slightly familiar (does the tripped-out 2000 adventure film The Beach, starring a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, ring a bell?). Norzi seemed pleased with this response. “We wanted to reinvent the aesthetic of psychedelic, because we think it hasn’t changed at all since the ‘60s,” he said. “Everybody’s always doing the same stuff, so we wanted to avoid that.”
Even the film’s portrayal of fractals (which, granted, are pretty freakin’ predictable, but also seem to be an inevitable by-product of the human brain on psychedelics) will be new to you unless you’re already an expert on the Shipibo. “What is fantastic about the Shipibos is that the women are artists, they spend the days drawing and painting and embroidering these patterns that are very prominent in the film and those patterns are usually transmitted by song through the shaman,” Norzi explained. “It’ s a musical score, but it’s also visual, and it’s also a plant, it’s also a healing pattern in itself.” And in a way, these maze-like geometric patterns recall vines growing up and across a wall.
Most importantly, Icaros makes the case for what we suspected anyway: that shamans are just as essential to an ayahuasca journey as the crushed-up leaves and vines that go into the psychedelic stew. “What really is the difference with ayahuasca, is the combination between the plant that you drink and and the work that the shamans do to you,” Norzi said. “Shamans could work also with other psychedelics, but you can’t take the shamans out of the equation with ayahuasca.”
In fact, Norzi is so sold on the whole shaman thing, that his next project it to open a Shipibo Conibo Center here in New York. “It’s going to be some sort of shamanic center or arts center and it will try to help propagate the creativity and the culture of the Shipibo people,” he explained. Ideally, the center would offer courses on Shipibo artistic practices, ceremonial traditions, and therapeutic services as well. “There are so many people experimenting with psychedelics again after 50 years, even big hospitals and big universities, and ayahuasca will be next. So the center aims to present shamans and put them in touch with institutions. because we feel that there is a gap between research and indigenous practice.”
But with all the attention and excitement surrounding ayahuasca, I wondered if there’s a chance that the shamanic traditions could be tainted by Western influence, that ayahuasca could be watered down (literally) or otherwise bridled, pasteurized, and sanitized. “Yes, I mean the spiritual tourism down there is exploding,” Norzi admitted. “But this is something that’s happening now, and it’s an opportunity for the locals, because it gives them a roll in the contemporary world, so I’m in support of it.” He said that people who are interested in traveling to a shamanic retreat should do their research and “be wary” of where they choose to embark on a spiritual journey with ayahuasca, which can be dangerous if done without proper care.
Norzi acknowledged that transforming generations-old ayahuasca rituals into more of a hospitality business, something that the Shipibo and other indigenous groups have chosen to do, “is also a risk for the tradition.” But, he insisted that “in the end, shamanism isn’t about tradition. There’s not something authentic to change, it’s the opposite– it’s something that, every time it happens, there’s new energy, new power. We need to establish a new way of doing shamanism. I imagine a future in which virtual reality and ayahuasca will be combined and shamanism will have a role in that, as well.”
In Norzi’s view, a “new shamanism” isn’t about throwing away the old and replacing it with the new. “Everything is changing now, but it always has been,” he said. “Shamanism is about experimentation, the shamanic journey is probably the oldest form of storytelling– art, music, performance, literature are nothing but elaborated forms of that same attempt to reach other worlds. So this is going to keep going, and virtual reality, cinema, video games will become more and more part of the same impulse. Shamanism happens every time you perform. It’s about the present moment, it’s not about the past, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future.”
As for Icaros and what he hopes it can achieve? “The film, yes, is also an invitation to go try it out,” Norzi said. “Because it’s a fantastic experience.”