Late at night last year in Los Angeles, dressed in a floor-length white kaftan, I had an earth-shattering mystical experience while dry heaving into a plastic Ikea rubbish bin. Some of you may be familiar with such a scene. If so, you’ve likely participated in a ceremony driven by ayahuasca, the psychotropic brew that has been used for shamanic divination in the Amazon basin since time immemorial. Recently, such ceremonies have showed up as punchlines in popular movies like David Wain’s Wanderlust (2012) and Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young (2014), and have been the subject of trend pieces everywhere from The New York Times to Marie Claire. But despite all this attention, there has been almost no analysis of the broader cultural shift of which these ceremonies are only a part.
Since conquistadors first hacked their way through South American jungles in search of gold and glory, the Amazon basin has held the imagination of the Western world in its thrall. But the nature of this enchantment has recently begun to change. Visions of the Amazon as a monstrously fecund hell, replete with strange and dangerous rituals, have been repeatedly dusted off and thrust to the fore of the Western dreamscape by way of spurious travelogues by colonists and rubber barons, cannibal-themed exploitation films of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and the films of Werner Herzog. These now appear to be on the wane. Meanwhile, we can chart a concomitant rise in media representation that casts the Amazon as the site of Western spiritual and material salvation, through miraculous plants and fungi that hold the key to breakthroughs in medicine and sustainable ecology, stories of exemplary indigenous cohabitation with nature and, most prominently, in the vogue for ayahuasca, which is stealthily shifting the centre of Western spiritual fixations from India to Peru, Brazil and Colombia.
That my experience in the ayahuasca community started in Los Angeles seems particularly apropos in light of this change. After all, when tectonic shifts take place in the West’s collective imagination, the tremors are inevitably channelled through Hollywood, sooner or later. Indeed, two recent films, both shot on location in the Amazon and both featuring casts of indigenous actors, neatly map the intersection of the two competing visions of the region and hint at their future trajectories: horror-movie director Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013), a gruesome reboot of the cannibal exploitation genre, and Columbian director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015), a spiritual epic that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars.
The unsubtle message of Embrace of the Serpent is that the Amazon can offer the world something far more valuable than its abundant material resources.
Purportedly an indictment of the self-serving culture of ‘slacktivism’, whose genesis Roth pins on Occupy Wall Street, The Green Inferno follows a group of callow undergrads at an unnamed New York university who are roped into an ill-advised mission to the Peruvian Amazon by a charismatic and unscrupulous student organizer, in order to thwart a logging company’s plans to raze a local village. The activists manage to succeed in their goal when, much to their narcissistic elation, the video of their obstruction of the loggers and their paramilitary flunkies goes viral. The ensuing celebration on a small prop plane back to Tarapoto goes south quickly, when an explosion sends the righteous youngsters careening back to the jungle floor. The survivors are promptly captured by the same tribe that they set out to save, and said tribe then spends the rest of the movie killing and eating them. Oh, the irony.
What is remarkable about this film is not just that it is racist. (Although, of course, it is – in the ways that any cannibal expolitation film might be assumed to be.) Rather, it is the arrogant extremity of its message. In addition to disparaging activism (‘Activism is so fucking gay,’ one character opines at the beginning of the film), The Green Inferno suggests that we in the West have nothing to learn from indigenous people. We should, rather, leave well enough alone and maintain a sense of Amazonian tribal peoples’ radical and inscrutable otherness, lest we be devoured by it both literally and figuratively.
Even when taken in the context of the film’s predecessors, The Green Inferno’s implicit message feels like hopeless anachronism. After all, Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – which revolves around a team of morally bankrupt documentarians making a film-within-a-film entitled The Green Inferno, from which Roth’s film unironically takes its name – was at least intent on driving home the hackneyed conceit that, when it comes to unmitigated savagery, the war-mongering, spectacle-hungry West trumps the flesh-eating tribes of our nightmares. Roth’s film, however, seems smugly satisfied merely to poke fun at the good intentions of youth.
Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent takes a different tack. Set in the Amazon during two of the most fevered periods of Western rubber extraction – the end of the initial rubber boom, which lasted from approximately 1879 to 1912, and the second boom set off by World War II – the film meanders back and forth through time, drawing parallels that not only undermine a sense of linear flow, but suggest that the narrative is taking place in some kind of dream time, made up of layers rather than moments. Weaving these temporal registers together is a shaman named Karamakate, who acts as a reluctant guide for two Western explorers: the first based on turn-of-the-century German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the second on the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes, considered the father of modern ethnobotany. Both are in search of the fictional yakruna flower, which, when used as an additive in ayahuasca (referred to in the film by its Brazilian designation, caapi), has unparalleled curative and visionary powers. It also, not incidentally, has the ability to increase the purity of rubber – a supreme benefit to Schultes, who was sent to the jungle (both in the film and in reality) at the behest of rubber companies.
Karamakate deals with the two men differently. The desperately ill Koch-Grünberg, who Karamakate assures can only be cured by the yakruna flower, never manages fully to gain the shaman’s trust and is left to die when Karamakate’s tribe is decimated as a result of Western influence. When he meets Schultes, however, it appears that Karamakate has taken to heart the warning that Koch-Grünberg’s guide, Manduca, hurled at him decades earlier, in response to his accusations that Manduca was aiding the enemy: ‘If we can’t get the whites to learn, it will be the end of us. The end of everything.’ Karamakate steers Schultes on a journey of self-realization that culminates in a transformative vision quest, which translated on screen in the film’s final minutes as an effusion of pulsating psychedelia to rival the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The unsubtle message here, which the real-life Schultes would propagate through his years of work cataloguing the world’s psychoactive plant life (Schultes was the first to study the composition of ayahuasca), is that the Amazon can offer the world something far more valuable than its abundant material resources. Such a message, in light of our collective plight as a species, is a timely riposte to Roth’s gangrenous cynicism.
Of course, even the most well-intentioned of cross-cultural endeavours has a way of going awry. Today, the streets of Iquitos are filled with ayahuasca tourists, whose impact is impossible to calculate. But though it might smack of wild-eyed hyperbole, something resonated with me when, in the semi-darkness of a nondescript living room in Los Angeles, with each of our individual journeys into the pleroma complete, a stranger grasped my arm, pulled me close and said: ‘Do you know what this is? It’s redemption.’ Of course, I never did ask him what kind.
First published in Issue 180