The Shaman and Ayahuasca: A Talk with Michael Wiese


 

A global shamanic renaissance is underway and ayahuasca, the
exalted plant elixir of the Amazon, is at its pulsing heart. Increasing numbers
of people around the world are engaging with this ancient art for healing and
spiritual exploration, opening up to realms of consciousness far adrift from
our modern experience. Unpredictable and intensely personal, these forays into
other worlds often confound the capacity of language and imagery to capture
them.

As interest in ayahuasca grows, so does the question of how to explain
this mysterious phenomenon to the uninitiated seeker. Filmmaker Michael Wiese’s latest documentary, The Shaman and Ayahuasca: Journeys to Sacred Realms, meets this
challenge with remarkable grace. Equal parts National Geographic and vacation
travelogue, the story follows Wiese and his companions — his wife, photographer
Geraldine Overton, and their charismatic translator, Alberto Roman — on a trip
to the Amazon to meet internationally known shaman Don Jose Campos. Shot in
various locations around Peru, the film explores the role of this powerful plant medicine in Amazonian culture through a series of vignettes and intimate
interviews with Don Jose and several of his close associates. Each person
brings a unique perspective to the emerging picture, weaving threads of
indigenous wisdom, contemporary science, and existential philosophy into the
complex tapestry of the ayahuasca experience.

In an opening scene, Don Jose discusses with striking
sincerity his deeply rooted connection to the natural world around him. Humans
are meant to exist in symbiosis with the plants and animals, he explains,
standing amidst a menagerie of medicinal shrubs and trees he knows by heart. When
the group travels to meet Don Jose’s friend, the late visionary painter Pablo
Amaringo, this obscure human-plant communion is brought visibly to life. In
mind-bending portraits of jaguar-skinned shamans enshrouded by seeing-eye vines,
the spiritual alchemy between man and nature that takes place in the ayahuasca
realms is magically revealed. These enchanting interviews with Amaringo,
recorded only months before his untimely death, are among the film’s brightest
highlights.

With Wiese acting as narrator, The Shaman and Ayahuasca is also a deeply introspective story of healing
and discovery. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, the filmmaker was initially drawn
to the Amazon in hopes of finding a cure in the psychoactive brew. But the
journey into the heart of ayahuasca shamanism, he would discover, is about something
much larger—and stranger—than one’s
own mortal spark in the flux of life. In an early narrative passage, Wiese
flings the boundaries open wide: “This film tries to show what cannot be shown:
an inner journey where it is possible for anyone who drinks ayahuasca to get a
glimpse of an extraordinary world inhabited by intelligent beings of all kinds,
whose mission seems to be to teach us about the nature of reality and our place
in the universe.”

I recently spoke with Michael Wiese about the making of this
film, his meeting with Pablo Amaringo, and ayahuasca's rising popularity around the
world.

 

RS: When did you
first meet the shaman in your film, Don Jose Campos?

Michael Weise: Well it was last June, so it hasn’t even been
a year, when we took our first journeys. And afterwards, as we see in the
movie, Geraldine was asking Don Jose questions—big questions. And Don Jose was
actually enjoying struggling with trying to talk about this space. And then
when we were leaving the next day, Geraldine said, “You know, we should do a
book with Don Jose.” And I thought that was a great idea. And not only a book,
but a whole line, which is now going to be our “divine arts” line.

So we got in touch with [our translator] Alberto and asked
Don Jose if he wanted to do a book. And he responded right away with, yes, he
would. He’d been approached by other people before to do books, and I guess he
didn’t feel like the timing or the people were right or something. So anyway,
Geraldine spent months preparing questions and reading the ayahuasca
literature, trying to find an approach and things that interested her. And so
we went down there with twenty-four pages of single-spaced questions. And then
when we got there, I took the camera and I said, “I don’t know what I want to
do, but I think it would be great if we documented what was going on.” Jose
said, “No problem, that would be fine.” So the film was kind of an
afterthought.

So, how did you get
interested in ayahuasca shamanism?

Well, I suppose the most experience I had with it before was
in Bali. I went there as a young man in my early twenties, lived there for
nearly a year. There was a shaman in the village that I became friends with. To
this day, I mean I saw him in January. So, I filmed him and knew about his
work. But you know, it’s been an interest of mine throughout my whole life.
Although I didn’t know it was so much a living art as it is now, and I wasn’t
involved with it experientially before. I was sort of involved with it
observationally.

And the shaman in
Bali was a different sort of shaman than the curanderos you met in the Amazon?

Yeah, I think they do use some plant medicines, but it’s not
the focus. They use trance to enter altered states and speak with the
ancestors. There’s a film I shot a couple months ago in Bali that explores
those dimensions, you know. But it’s quite a different thing. Maybe they get to
the same place – some of the same dimensions. It seems that maybe they do.

After having an
intellectual curiosity about ayahuasca particularly, what was it that inspired
you to seek it out and have the experience yourself?

Well I was doing research on the Internet, trying to figure
out what to do about the Parkinson’s. And so I found a link that said that
Banisteriopsis—not necessariy ayahuasca but Banisteriopsis, which is the
ayahusaca vine—had been used in the 1920s for treatment of Parkinson’s. It had
been discontinued because the drug companies couldn’t figure out how to patent
it. But I couldn’t find out anything more than that. And that led me to
ayahuasca, so I thought I should check it out. I checked it out really as an
approach to my healing. And then, of course, I realized quite quickly that it
was that and a lot more.

I’d like to ask you
about your relationship with Don Jose. He’s really the main character in this
film. I’ve had the pleasure of being in ceremony with him, and he’s an
amazingly gifted healer. What was it like to get to know him so personally?

From the first second I saw him, I relaxed and realized that
this was a really special person. Any images or preconceptions I had about some
toothless shaman, you know, with tattoos or something, went away and we just
made an instant connection. That happened with [my wife] Geraldine as well. And
we immediately found this was somebody that we could trust, which I think is
key in the whole experience. And then after the first journey, it was really clear
that he was a master at moving these forces around, protecting us, you know.
His timing was impeccable. And all these skills that we’ve seen him demonstrate
have just been awe-inspiring.

I think we made a really strong connection with him by our
curiosity, our great desire to learn about this space through the questioning.
At his home in Peru, he was the most gracious host you could imagine. He took
us everywhere, made sure we had great food, a great place to stay, the
transportation was arranged—I mean, every detail, he attended to it. He is a
very busy guy in Peru, but he gave us 500% of his attention and time.

That’s really great.
How long were you there for the shooting of the film?

Almost two weeks. We journeyed with ayahuasca almost
immediately when we got there, which was perfect because it got us all in the
same mind-zone. Things flowed very smoothly, there wasn’t a hiccup at all. And
with filming projects, there’s always hiccups.

You mentioned that
Don Jose works in these other-dimensional spaces beyond just doing physical
healings. I think that this is something that people of a Western paradigm
mindset have a lot of difficulty with when they begin to learn about shamanism.
You know, the idea that there’s this interspecies human-plant communication
going on, and these other worlds and beings with wisdom to impart. Was it a
challenge for you to open up this?

No, that wasn’t a challenge, because years ago I’d had a
personal experience on a beach with a dolphin one day where there was a
communication going on. I made a film about that and went on an expedition to
do a human-dolphin interspecies communication project. But I had no idea that
you could talk with everything! [Laughs.]

A lot of the not-useful beliefs I had were burned off in
about the first three minutes of the first journey with ayahuasca. It just went
like a deck of cards, just went doof doof
doof doof doof!
Just burned through them. And you know, I thought I was
going to have to linger and suffer with them and go through changes about giving
them up. But they just flew off me effortlessly, and there wasn’t much pain or
suffering or strong healing going on.

So, it’s a challenge to try to make it make sense using
language or filmmaking, or the kind of limited communication that we have outside
the sort of telepathic space. Anything I could say about ayahuasca, as you
know, is very primitive, and the film is like a scratch in the dirt. A stick in
the earth trying to explain the meaning of life, you know. But we try, and we
do the best we can with our limited communication technologies.

I felt like the
interview segments with Pablo Amaringo were at the heart of this film. Not only
is his artwork the perfect vehicle to convey the indescribable worlds of the
ayahuasca experience, but we also get a window into the soul of this remarkable
healer and artist. And of course this is made even more profound by the fact
that he died shortly after the filming. So, what was it like spending time with
Pablo Amaringo?

All we could do was smile, because the warmth that radiated
from him, and the openness and the power, the gentleness—it was like being with
a great master. We realized it probably right away. In fact, Don Jose took us
to see him before we did any interviews with Don Jose. So Don Jose was very consciously
providing that opening and that connection. And Don Jose was actually as much
of a student as we were in the presence of Pablo. He had his tape recorder out
as well. And Pablo is just zinging us with one mind-blower after another. And
we were getting it! We were just thanking him, our jaws on the ground. And then
he’d go on to the next one. So it was very much like an ayahuasca experience
being with Pablo, in that the offerings and wisdom, the profound sharing of
things in his life, were just heartful. I hope that comes across.

Yes, I think it does.
Another scene that stood out for me is when you are at the Belen market in
Iquitos. There are all these vendors selling pulverized ayahuasca vine on the
street, and Don Jose remarks that it is something he finds distasteful, sort of
like profaning this sacred medicine. Do you worry that there’s this same sort
of danger of desacralizing or diluting ayahuasca’s spirit through the growing
interest in shamanism in the West?

Yeah, I do. I don’t know if you’ve read Rak Razam’s book Aya, but he talks about the shamanism scene in Iquitos, and in some aspects it's rather seedy. I was in San Francisco in
the late 60s and it reminds of Haight-Ashbury and how the good can go bad, or
how it can spoil or be diverted commercially. And yeah, that’s something that
can happen, or is happening and will to a greater extent.

But conversely, Don Jose’s doing what he can to preserve
ayahuasca and create a place where it can be grown and properly respected. And
then the other thing is we just have to trust that ayahuasca itself, in its
spreading of consciousness, will look out for itself.

Finally, I’m curious — what
is the most important thing you’ve learned from drinking ayahusaca?

Well, I could give you about twenty things. But probably,
that there is a vaster and greater intelligence than I ever imagined. But
that’s not the big “aha.” The big “aha” in my most recent journeys was that I
can work with this plant teacher who was gentle and caring, and was in fact a
mother intelligence who was devoted to my wellbeing, to my self-realization,
and to my healing. Does it get any more magnificent than that? I don’t think
so.

 

"The Shaman and Ayahuasca: Journeys to Sacred Realms" premieres on June 17th at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles. For more details and advance tickets, follow this link.