Junkies are the chosen people of Iboga, Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis says one warm evening last November in New York City. Were the perfect candidates for proselytizing…because we got nothin. We got no job, we got no family, we got no future, we got no past. Were perfect blank slates. Were perfect converts. Were Saul on the road to fuckin Damascus. Were totally converted and were going to preach in the City of Athens. Were here to carry this message.
It was nearly a year ago that I met the dynamic Mugianis as I was writing, The Iboga Insurrection, a feature article that examined the cosmology of the small but vociferous ibogaine underground, a community of mostly former addicts whose lives were saved by the psychoactive Iboga plant of West Africa, which has extraordinary powers to curb addiction. These converts, as Dimitri calls them, now work tirelessly with the medicine as part penance, part service, believing that this is now their calling.
Dimitri is one of a handful of these lay-providers or non-licensed (Ibogaine is illegal in the US) dispensers of iboga or ibogaine, performing what back in the day used to be called Angel Jobs, the arduous process of taking care of a physically dependent junkie in the throes of withdrawal. The tools of this profession used to be chicken soup and marijuana, with the occasional valium thrown in. Today, the tool box has expanded to include a bitter-tasting bark, and one hell of an 18 hour ride through your psyche.
Unlike his colleagues in the ibogaine underground, who generally administer the refined ibogaine salt in a home or clinical setting, in his work Dimitri practices the traditional Bwiti religion of Gabon around which ritualized iboga use is built. Of course, this former musician, and junkie didnt start out painting his face and dancing with feathers. His metamorphosis from junkie to angel to Bwiti shaman, Mobengo, is the ostensible focus of Michel Negropontes, Im Dangerous With Love, opening this week for a limited run at the IFC Center in New York City. It is a haunting, visceral exploration of addiction and one contemporary man's fearless and determined quest for healing and redemption through the ancient wisdom of the Bwiti and their "magical" plant, Iboga.
Ever since he travelled to Amsterdam in 2002 to take iboga for the first time in the hopes of ending the lifelong addiction that claimed the life of his common-law wife, Dimitri has spent the better part of the last ten years getting junkies off of drugs. This is not easy work. It takes a certain kind of madman to grapple with the myriad shadows of the addict in agony. It takes a person of strength and compassion, who is utterly unfazed by the slippery hustle of the calculating addict trying to talk his or her way into another fix. It takes someone who understands soul sickness. It takes a shaman.
The film, set over 4 years, charts Dimitris journey from the darkness of addiction to the resurrection he found in Bwiti. It opens in 2002 with Dimitri detoxing himself for the first time, then jumps to sometime soon thereafter where he is working as a lay-provider of ibogaine, desperately trying to help a detoxing junkie keep down the ibogaine he is feeding him long enough to begin working. There is a certain impatience to Dimitri as he struggles to maintain focus and care for the graphically sick addict heaving repeatedly into a garbage can. You begin to see that this impatience masks a deeper unsettledness, a spiritual wound which has yet to receive any salve.
As the film progresses, we peer deeper into Dimitris soul to reveal a man driven to save as many lives as possible, and you get the feeling that its in some desperate hustle to con God into letting him through the pearly gates. One after another he dutifully dispenses ibogaine to addicts, a kind of forlorn distance pervading his being, until one night in a harrowing scene, a client nearly dies in seizure. Something about the helplessness he experienced in those few seconds not knowing if the young man would live or die forces Dimitri to confront the hole at the center of his being. It is at this point, years into his new ibogaine-centered life, that Dimitri makes the pilgrimage to Gabon to be initiated by the Bwiti, and commence his spiritual transformation.
I'm Dangerous With Love is Michel Negropontes sequel to Methadonia, his film about the physiological incarceration that heroin addicts experience on methadone maintenance. Its shot in an austere verite style, with harrowing close ups of vomitus and stunning night footage of Bwiti rituals. But instead of retreading the tales of misery that are endemic to any addiction narrative, I'm Dangerous With Love quickly becomes a sort of shamanic journey into the underworld, with Dimitri as a kind of Ulysses of the Lower East Side. As we sail forth with this intrepid survivor, lashed to the deck to resist the song of the Sirens, we embark upon the narrative of transformation that has become such a nascent archetype these days.
For those seeking a path out of darkness, this film is not to be missed.