“Aya Awakenings:” Buckle up and hold on!
Given the current popularity of Ayahuasca—the psychedelic beverage brewed by Amazonian shamans—it’s not surprising that documentary filmmakers have discovered the subject. Pretty soon we’ll have enough movies for an Ayahuasca film festival. First up is Aya Awakenings, an account of one man’s inner and outer journey through the worlds of Ayahuasca.
Rak Razam is an Australian freelance writer and filmmaker who traveled to Peru to work with indigenous shamans and discover what their psychoactive brew could teach him. In addition to writing and producing the film, Razam also narrates, which makes Aya Awakenings a highly personal statement. With the exception of a few brief interviews and some bits of historical and cultural context, it’s Razam’s story and viewpoint all the way. That focus gives the film a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity, but it also raises some questions. Fortunately, since we’re spending 90 minutes in his company, Razam is a likeable guide on a journey that would be, for a lot of us, a pretty harrowing trip.
The voyage begins as Razam arrives in Iquitos, Peru, ground zero of Ayahuasca culture. He attends a conference on shamanism and tours the city, where Ayahuasca appears to be for sale on every street corner.
Once he heads into the jungle, the inner odyssey begins. Razam meets a series of shamans, some Peruvian and some American. His cameras record a number of Ayahuasca ceremonies, most of which occur at night in open air pavilions to the sound of droning jungle insects. We see ritual participants flickering like ghosts in the candlelight, but the real star of the trip sequences comes out of a computer. If you’re a connoisseur of psychedelic graphics, you’ll want to see this movie.
Razam’s narration makes it clear that his encounters with Ayahuasca weren’t always easy. He experiences extreme nausea along with disturbing visions. If there was an Oscar for Extreme Spirituality, Razam would win for his vision of a jaguar spirit emerging from a puddle of his own vomit. Undaunted, he proceeds deeper into the jungle and the depths of his own psyche.
The spiritual journey reaches a climax at the secluded retreat of an American shaman and his houseguest, a bare-chested scientist who studies the effects of psychedelics on the human brain. The scientist wires Razam’s head for EEG readings and the shaman offers him a pipe. Razam smokes powdered DMT—the pure form of the psychoactive ingredient in Ayahuasca—and blasts off into another dimension. His narration hints at the ineffable nature of the experience, but from the outside it looks like he’s babbling and having a seizure.
In the end, Razam finds some enlightenment in shamanic prophecies of immanent global transformation. Prophecies are easy to come by, however. Viewers may wonder if he found something of greater personal worth, and, if so, whether it required so much risk and adversity.
That’s the paradox of Aya Awakenings—it’s thrilling, colorful, and mind-expanding, but it’s also the limited viewpoint of one person who has a thing for extreme experiences. Your mileage may vary. It’s quite possible to have a powerful, transformative experience with psychedelics in a comfortable and familiar setting. Likewise, the contents of Razam’s inner journey are his own. Enlightenment can happen without visions of jaguars or the astral plane or the stately pleasure dome of Kubla Khan.
Ayahuasca is challenging enough by itself. We don’t need Ayahuasca envy.
With those caveats in mind, it’s easy to recommend Aya Awakenings. It’s entertaining, informative, and honest. Just keep in mind that it’s one person’s trip.
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