In his search for answers James hears about shamanistic healing practices in Peru focused on the hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca. He packs up his kit and heads to Iquitos to seek a shaman to guide him.
James’s previous treatments and in fact his whole life up to this point, are presented as morally bankrupt and traditionally Western. AKA: the problem that needs solving. Degan shows us clips from pharmaceutical assembly lines pressing out pills over ominous urgent tones like cautionary scenes from Reefer Madness. Jumbled nightmare images float by to the disembodied voices of doctors and James (and in subtitles in case you’re not listening) saying “I didn’t want to take pills.”
Degan crosses the line between documentary and indoctrination in this film to such a degree that I’m not sure it’s still a documentary. In his director’s statement on the website he is an enthusiastic advocate for Ayahuasca and makes it clear that’s why he wanted to create the film. It is manipulative and presents no balancing arguments or opinions. If they had taken an obnoxious educated skeptic along to offer critical counterpoint Degan would have had a watchable film.
James winds up meeting several charlatans because the Ayahuasca practice is rotten with scam artists as a result of primarily Americans showing up for treatment practically begging to be fleeced. The con men are happy to separate fools from their money.
He found one particularly unpleasant individual stockpiling and selling something he’s says is Ayahuasca (street value, according to his reckoning $250K). He’s an American ex-con so creepy he’ll make your flesh crawl who also raises and fights gamecocks to “keep in touch with my warrior spirit.” This is probably just me but the feverish wild-eyed breathlessly intoned proverbs about the spirits of the forest and the magic of the ceremony are orders of magnitude more repulsive coming from a skeevy ex-pat white guy.
In another sweat lodge Ayahuasca ceremony James witnesses the death of a participant who reacted poorly to the drug. This does not deter him.
Eventually he meets a shaman who offers to treat him for free, a kindly well-intentioned man named Pepe.
“The worst thing that could happen would be someone who is authentically unwell watching the film and beginning to wonder whether the cure is in the jungle”
James brings that old white-kid-seeks-magic-brown-person racism to this relationship.There’s a special kind of disrespect and ignorance that leads people to make this “noble savage” connection. It’s not malicious or intentional, James thinks he’s running away from the failings of American culture, but he winds up being the embodiment of them wandering wide-eyed through the Amazon.