Plant Medicine, Healing, and Ayahuasca in Icaros: A Vision

The narrative film ICAROS: A VISION details the plants of the Amazon which can be smoked to keep away bad thoughts, or ingested to help get rid of susto, the disease of fear. The most popular is ayahuasca, a tree vine or “vine of the soul,” which is administered by shamans in a hut known as a maloca. Western doctors are currently exploring its use for everything from addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder.

ICAROS: A VISION, which made its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed in the Peruvian Amazon at an ayahuasca healing center. A trio of contemporary artists–Leonor Caraballo, Matteo Norzi, and Abou Farman–were on their own journey there when they decided to make their first-ever film, which they completed over the course of three years. Though not a documentary, the film’s actors were in fact filmed doing ayahuasca for the first time. The Peruvian actors in the film were all local people who work at the retreat center. The film dramatizes the visualizations that come with the drug experience utilizing videogame graphics and animations. Medical visualizations, from MRIs to retina scans, morph and spread on screen. Science & Film spoke in person with the filmmakers during the festival.

The film’s co-directors are Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi. Caraballo was dying of breast cancer, and passed away before the film was complete. She and her partner, Abou Farman, the film’s producer and co-writer who is an Anthropology professor, had done a series of projects over the years documenting and visualizing her tumor, and similar images flash on screen during the film. Farman said, “Some of the aesthetic and some of the images that relate MRIs to shamanism came out of a project I did with Leo called Object Breast Cancer. In the project we devised our own technique to go into MRI images and remove the tumor and turn it into a 3D object which we then 3D printed. The doctors were very much involved in that process. When they saw the objects they realized they had only been looking at tumors on the 2D axis and that volume might be a better indicator of several things.”

Ayhuasca and psychedelics are being used today in research laboratories to help patients with PTSD and depression. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics (MAPS) program is one of the leading research groups. “People declare that by 2021 there will be the first psychedelic hospitals in the United States. What we want to do is help fill the gap and represent shamans. People don’t understand that shamanism is not only [about] what you ingest. Shamanism is a combination of actions […] It would be nice to be able to fill the gap and bring science and shamanism closer and closer so that we don’t waste time,” said Norzi. Farman countered, “I have more trepidations about that myself. I am totally supportive of all of them, but it is a very different event. A hospital tames and manages that kind of exposure which is a very different event than a maloca and a shaman.”

“There is an experiment in Brazil and it was presented at the Horizons conference. They gave people with mental problems ayahuasca inside an MRI machine. It’s funny because we did this in the film artistically. It was surprising because the experiment was not as successful as they hoped it would be because being in the MRI machine is a nightmare to begin with. You don’t want to be tripping. Shamans say ayahuasca is the spiritual x-ray machine. It is used for examining your field of energy,” said Norzi. “Words like energy are words in physics but in popular culture you kind of feel queasy about getting too new age-y about it. ICAROS: A VISION reinvented the language of hallucination and cinema. The same way, we need a reinvention of the terminology that surrounds this experience,” said Farman.

ICAROS: A VISION was made over the course of five months in the same city as Werner Herzog’s FITZCARALDO. According to director Matteo Norzi, “FITZCARALDO, what we like about it, is the idea that dreams can move mountains. We were in the same city, so the conditions of the shoot were very similar to the problems they had. Nevertheless, we want to take a distance because the real Fitzgerald, the rubber baron who inspired FITZCARALDO who actually moved the boat from one side of the mountain to the other, was terrible to the indigenous communities. He committed terrible atrocities, so we dislike any glorification of his name.”

The filmmakers of ICAROS: A VISION tried to imagine an Amazon of the future, if there is one. (Science & Film previously interviewed director Ciro Guerra of EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, which was filmed in the Colombian Amazon and represented the Amazon of the past).

The production company the filmmakers founded, Conibo Productions, hopes to continue with works to promote the creativity of the Amazonian people through different media—from film to visual art. ICAROS: A VISION, has made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently looking for distribution.