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Metamorphosis: Making an Ayahuasca Documentary

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For as much world wide popularity ayahuasca shamanism has gained this decade, there has not been an authoritative documentary film made on the subject. Although anybody exploring the Ayahusaca world should use the word “authority” very lightly, Keith Aronowitz’s new ayahusaca feature length documentary, “Metamorphosis,” does a laudable job of translating the difficult healing experiences of ayahuasca shamanism into film.

Recently I interviewed Aronowitz at a hole in the wall coffee shop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We talked extensively about his intense creative/healing journey into the heart of ayahuasca shamanism.

A. E.: How did you first hear about ayahuasca and what led you to the Amazon?

K. A.: The first time I actually heard the word “ayahusaca,” I was a kid or in high school. I had heard about a visionaryplant/vine that indigenous peoples used in the Amazon jungle. Then in 2001,while I was in Bolivia I met another traveler in the jungle. He told me about ayahuasca. He had just gone into the jungle and met a shaman. The circumstances didn’t sound too hot to me, so I didn’t think too much about it. But then in 2006 I read an article in National Geographic about a lodge in Iquitos, Peru, called Blue Morpho where people could go and drink ayahuasca. As soon as I read the article I knew I was going to do it. The woman who wrote the article had fought demons and cured her depression. I knew I had to do it. I booked my trip like three weeks later. And then in May of 2006 I was in the Amazon drinking ayahuasca at the Blue Morpho Lodge.

What wasyour first trip to Blue Morpho like and what were your first ayahuasca ceremonies like?

The first impression I had was of the other travelers. And it surprised me. Usually when you go on trips with a bunch of people, or excursions, you don’t know what’s going to happen or what to expect. But as soon as I got there I had a really good feeling in my bones. Everybody seemed really cool and seeking something unique. My mind was at ease because ofthe people. I had no idea what to expect when it came time for ceremony. I knew it could be powerful and difficult, but I really did feel at ease, strangely. I got about a third of a cup. I had some mild visions at first. I started noticing fractal patterns, and then they changed into visions. I felt like there was telepathy going on in theroom. There was a guy a few mattress pads down from me who was having a pretty rough time, purging some really difficult things. I was able to stay prettycentered, which I felt great about. It was like I was learning to be within myself and calm in a very different way. It was really cool.

I had more trepidation the second night. I knew it could be a lot worse than it was, and I knew I had some things I wanted to face, so I was definitely more apprehensive for my second ceremony. Sure enough, within a half hour I was off my mattress, scratching the floor and hitting myself in the head trying to get back to my body. I knew I had lost my mind (laughter). I was trapped in hell, and I was never going to get out. Ipurged basically all night. It was a pretty rough experience. I didn’t know what to make of it the next day. It was humbling.

The next day I talked to Hamilton Souther, the owner of Blue Morpho and one of the Master Shamans, and he was able to put me at ease within a few minutes. “You have to go through the chaos of your mind, sometimes, in order to get to clarity.” It made a lot of sense to me when I realized that these shamans are doing this all the time. They know how to manage the experience.

The next few ceremonies I felt, off and on, like I wanted to die, and like I was never going to make it through the week of five ceremonies. They kept encouraging me to find the light in my heart and to connect to it. It was really, really hard, but eventually by the last few ceremonies I did feel the light in my heart and was able to connect to it and make it through. It was an incredible experience and forever changed my life. I learned a lot, that’s for sure! (more laughter)

How did this turn from a personal healing experience and a visionary experience into, “I think I’m going to make a movie about ayahuasca.” How did your project evolve from your first trip?

Well, on my first trip I brought my camera and did some filming for fun, with the permission of Blue Morpho. I didn’t film any ceremonies, but I was allowed to take some audio and I also got the permission of several guests for before/after video interviews, which turned out really cool. So when I got home I made a 90 minute movie out of the film, just for fun, and sent it to everyone in the group who wanted a copy, and I sent a copy to Blue Morpho, too. Then Hamilton Souther got in touch with me, and we talked about my home movie. I was so fascinated by the subject matter. I felt like I could do endless examinations about ayahuasca shamanism, and I wanted to do something in my life I was passionate about after my ceremonies. So we talked and he agreed to let me do my project at Blue Morpho. I wanted to translate the experience into film and show people what it’s about, if possible.

Hamilton believed there was some misrepresentation and sensationalism about the medicine out there. He had a number of groups interested in doing films at Blue Morpho, but he hadn’t found the right fit. So we talked a lot at the beginning, making sure we were on the same page. He liked my 90-minute home movie, so he agreed to let me come and experience more ceremonies as I filmed so that I could immerse myself more in the experience as I made the movie.

What is your background in film?

I’ve been picking up a camera since I was eight years old. My dad and grandpa got me into it. And I’ve always loved nature photography.

Professionally, I started out being a jack of all trades, editing, shooting, and directing low-budget TV and commercials. From there I eventually made my way to network news. After a decade or so in NY, I spent the last dozen years in Los Angeles working on a variety of things including documentaries.

I always wanted to get a little more independent and do something of my own but never found a subject I was interested in. I really wanted my own vision and voice, too. The ayahuasca experience really gave that to me, gave me the inspiration. The ceremonies are so intense and incredible.

The film is incredibly gripping. You do a good job of following the stories of agroup of guests throughout a week of ceremonies. What were some of their healing stories?

Well, there is a whole spread of people that travel to South America to try drinking ayahuasca for healing. It’s not really accurate to say that it’s just a “hippie” or “new age” thing, or “psychedelic.” It’s far broader than that. There are people from all walks of life, all income levels, all different kinds of jobs, seeking all different kinds of healings, looking for all different kinds of things in their lives. A lot of people come because western medicine isn’t working for them for some specific problem. So I tried to pick a good sampling of the different kinds of people I met during a whole summer of working on the movie and drinking Ayahuasca at the lodge. I interviewed about 25 people over two months. I wanted a good cross section.

One guy had an eczema. He was in the professional business world but was not able to move forward because of his sickness. He had tried everything, and it was just getting worse. So he had been at the lodge for a long time working on his eczema and actually making progress for the first time since childhood. Real progress. He’s still there right now making progress little by little, and he feels that it’s the only thing that has really helped him so far.

A woman, a PhD psychologist, was seriously sexually abused as a child. She had emotional and physical issues surrounding that. She had tried all kinds of therapy and medicines, but nothing was helping her until she drank in a few ceremonies. It is still very much an ongoing process, but she feels it is slowly healing her and allowing her to move forward with her life.

Another guy suffered from just inner doubt or cynicism. He has been to Blue Morpho several times, and believes that the ayahuasca experience has transformed his outlook on life.

Other people are there for a variety of physical, spiritual, and emotional reasons and we see their struggles and challenges throughout the film as well as how they have changed and grown throughout the process.

What were some of the difficulties of filming these ceremonies?

Well the key ingredient was respect. How am I going to do this in an unobtrusive manner? The interviews were key, obviously, because they took place outside the ceremonies. But during the ceremonies I had a night-vision light, and I tried to take only short 2-3 minute shots and then make sure my presence was not agitating to anybody. It was a good challenge! I made sure to film all the variety of experiences people were having throughout the ceremonies and tried to make sure I captured some of the key moments of the people participating in the film.

It’s also very interesting that you appear as the director in the film, going through your own difficulties in the ceremonies. Did you know that was going to happen?

Well, at first I thought I might narrate the film or be a part of the interviews, but then I scratched the idea. Then I thought I would add in some shots of me during my own process. I think those images were important to my creativity. I went through some very challenging experiences during ceremony and I think they helped remind me of what I was doing as I was making the movie.

At one point during the film, one of the shamans says, “Everybody who comes here suffers,” and the film is really about facing fear, I think. To what extent is an ayahuasca ceremony about fear? Are there other aspects of an ayahuasca ceremony?

That’s a good question. Fear is definitely an element of the ceremony. It’s a daunting task to drink ayahuasca in the jungle. Anybody who gets in there has to have a lot of courage. Every night I saw the people going into ceremony to face their fears. I was inspired. For most people who go to drink ayahuasca medicine, nothing else has worked, or they are looking to really challenge themselves. That’s kind of what it’s all about, in a way. But fear is not the only thing that takes place. You experience divinity. Universal knowledge through visions. Oneness. Love. Your heart opens. You feel connected to everyone and everything. I feel like I had to go to hell in order to get to heaven. I’m not saying that’s always how it has to be for everyone else, but that’s how it was for me. I had to straighten out my energy in order to see love and to feel love. It was really hard work, but that’s what I was there for.

And at the end there’s a lot of laughter, relief, some good flatulence. Whew, I made it. We made it! Hopefully I’ll be ready for the next ceremony. And you grow and learn.

That’s true. For all the screaming and purging and extreme fear, there’s a lot of celebration in the film as people face and transcend darkness. It’s very charismatic. It demonstrates the miraculous healing effects of an ancient medicine. Do you feel like your film is all about getting people to go out and drink ayahuasca? Do you feel like you were an objective film maker?

Well I’m not sure there is such a thing as objective film making. You’re always deciding which shots to use, what sounds to use, how to order things, and how to piece together a story. You shape that story. That being said, I wanted to present an accurate story, not a promotional advertisement. To me, Blue Morpho is a unique place because one of the shamans is a westerner. He left his life in America in order to learn this healing tradition in the middle of the Amazon. So he’s a conduit to helping other people heal through this tradition. Between him and his teachers, Alberto and Julio, something really special is happening at Blue Morpho. A tradition is being kept in tact, kept sacred, but also shared with the world.

The thing is that people go to this place with lots of different ailments, depression, addictions, and they get healing, and they learn about a very special medicine tradition. I hope that ayahuasca and Blue Morpho helps anybody who needs healing. I think ayahuasca can really help people heal and evolve. It opens up a healthy dialog. There are alternative paths for growth and healing!

What should we look forward to? Where can we find the film? When’s the release? Festivals? Premieres?

I’ve been going through the festival process this year. The world premiere was this June at the Breckenridge Film Festival in Colorado. The film won the festival award for Best Cinematography. And I’m excited that its South American premiere will be at the 5th International Shamanism Conference in Iquitos, Peru, this July. I’m happy about that because the Amazon is the birthplace of the medicine, and there will be a big shamanic presence there. There will be some good writers there, too.

The New York City showing will be at the Wild Project on June 20th. It’s at 7:30pm and tickets are $10. The DVD will be available on my website this summer. You can check out previews and short clips from the film at my website as well.

We’ll be sure to post a short announcement here at RS when the film is available for purchase, and we’ll also announce the screening at the Wild Project so that New Yorkers can get out and see the film. Thanks for taking the time to talk about your movie.

Thank you. I like reading Reality Sandwich. I like what you guys are doing. And I think your readers might enjoy the film, so I hope they check it out!

If you would like to join the Metamorphosis mailing list for announcements, premieres, and DVD announcements, please sign up here.

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