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.