When I flew to the Amazon basin to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, I, like many other people, did so because I wanted to be a more peaceful, empathetic, and loving person, and had heard that ayahuasca could help me on my journey.
This isn't the case for everyone who uses the substance. Many people turn to ayahuasca in an attempt to tackle depression and other mental health issues. In the documentary The Last Shaman, filmmaker Raz Degan chronicles the journey of James Freeman, the son of a Harvard medical professor, who traveled to Peru in an attempt to conquer the depression that had tormented him for years. Freeman gave himself ten months to work with the native plants of the region. At the end of that period, he said he would take his own life if not cured.
"[I had] tried all sorts of pharmaceuticals, fish oils, exercise, electroconvulsive therapy, ketamine treatment, trans cranial magnetic stimulation, and of course a host of other alternative treatments—I was completely convinced that only a miracle could help me," Freeman told me in an interview last week.
What Freeman experienced in the jungle—as he lived in virtual isolation on a diet of traditional plant medicines—is more than most people will experience in their lives. From visions that would bring Terrence McKenna to tears, to states of deep internal realization, Freeman says he bore witness to the power of the profound.
But, Freeman told me, "it's not all love and light" in the Amazon. Just like the rest of the world, there are charlatans there who do not care about your well-being. "Money is on the line, reputations are on the line, egos are on the line." His advice to anyone who thinks about traveling to the jungle to drink ayahuasca is to recognize the dangers involved and to "be careful."
Raz Degan, the film's director, shared a similar sentiment. I spoke to him about what drew him to James and got his take on the rising commercialization of one of South America's most ancient spiritual traditions.
VICE: How did you meet James?
Raz Degan: I met James when I was interviewing patients at various healing centers in Iquitos [Peru]. He seemed to capture the sensitivity and vulnerability the film needed. His being a privileged young man [made him] the perfect protagonist to drive the film forward. He had an emotional void that embodied the existential question of what one's purpose is in today's modern day world.
What inspired you to abandon your initial project and instead do a documentary about him?
Initially, the film was going to be about ayahuasca, and then I realized it was more about cause and effect. While shooting the movie about ayahuasca, it became apparent that by highlighting the plant it could potentially contribute to the decay of it. It felt more appropriate to show one man's journey of awakening, through the medicine. The story then became about a triumph of a spirit rather than the ayahuasca itself.
What do you mean by "cause and effect" and the "decay" of ayahuasca?
The sacrificing of sacredness. The medicine is being exploited, misused, and sold as a cure all. It takes eight to 20 years for the vine to grow, and the demand will soon succeed the supply. The local people who have been using the medicine traditionally for centuries will soon no longer be able to afford it. Not to mention every other Westerner who drinks a cup or has a ceremony three times is becoming a shaman who serves medicine in their backyard. Ayahuasca is not a joke. I have sat in more than 200 ceremonies with more than 50 different shamans, and I have seen it all. People should take this far more seriously. This is not a recreational drug, and there is definitely cause and effect involved. For every cup drank in the West, there is some tree falling down in the East.
Can ayahuasca's transformative power be preserved when the tradition is commercialized to the extent we are witnessing now?
Ayahuasca shines a light to help you recognize that which you already know. The spirit of the plant connects to your own spirit. Ayahuasca is a mirror to the transformation of the individual. It unveils the truth of your hidden emotions and helps you remember that which you are. Like anything, something so pure can be tainted, though the essence of its very nature will always remain.
Although you spent significant time in Peru shooting this documentary, what unanswered questions remain?
Why you would trust and pay thousands of dollars to a bunch of maniacs disguised as shamans who I wouldn't let babysit a dog? It's a remedy for disaster.
What advice do you have for people who are considering heading to South America to work with ayahuasca and a shaman?
I attempted to share my experience of what goes on in Peru around the ayahuasca business. I would tell anyone interested in the medicine, watch the film and do some research. There is great potential in ayahuasca for amazing transformation, though everything comes at a price.
The Last Shaman is playing in select theaters now.