LA Weekly: Aya: Awakenings


Katie Bain

Date of original publication

Feb 11, 2014


The new film Aya: Awakenings goes inside the world of ayahuasca, exploring the shamanic resurgence and ayahuasca movement in Peru and around the world. With trippy visuals, jungle sounds and more, the movie attempts to capture the experience of taking the hallucinogenic substance. The movie also explores the ayahuasca tourism industry in the rainforests of South America, where the vine that's the source of ayahuasca grows. Directed by Timothy Parish, the movie has its L.A. premiere tomorrow evening at The Source in Venice. 

We spoke with Aya: Awakenings writer/producer Rak Razam about the film.

What inspired you to make this movie?
I went down [to Peru] pretty objectively looking into this, and I went to the Amazonian shaman conference and drank with 24 different curanderos, or shamans, over the course of two months, and the story just went deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, until it became the book, which became the film. 

The film comments on my experience, but also through that, the experience of this generation of Western seekers who are relearning the shamanic realms and this healing modality. It's not your average talking heads documentary; it takes the gonzo approach by anchoring the exact narration from the book and making that come alive with all of this video content. We take the viewer on the journey.

Why do you think the timing is right for the film?
One of the things in the West is, even though we've had experiences from the '60s on with psychedelics, there haven't been the elders, like there are in the jungle, and the tribal acceptance like there is in indigenous cultures. Indigenous cultures all over the world still use plant medicine that are psychoactive and change the brain in some way. Iboga is used in Africa, ayahuasca is on the rise, psilocybin is being tested in hospitals at John Hopkins and in England for people with post traumatic stress disorder.

We're rediscovering that these plant medicines are valuable on a neurochemical level, but we still don't have the cultural support network. The Amazon has that, and these indigenous tribes have that, and this is what we're relearning, as well as how to communicate the altered experience. The movie really anchors this cultural experience and why this experience is important in people's lives.

And why is it important?
Primarily, because it is so effective. It is a very powerful tool. The planet secretes these substances, and there are ancient relationships that we have with them that we've only not been having in the last few hundred years of Western culture, more or less. At this point in time we're living through a paradigm shift and an age of ecological transformation, if not devastation. We're living through a time where the systems that support us in Western culture seem to be failing, whether it's the financial system or the political system. There's this sort of spiritual sense of malaise, or unease, where people are hungering for something authentic or true.

How do you recommend that people who are interested who are interested in Ayahuasca but don't have any pre-existing connections to it get involved?
It is a touchy one, because obviously in America it's not something that is sanctioned. It's really on the rise, but it's private. If people are interested I think they sort of have to network, because it's really becoming more accessible to find people who are connected to the medicine. And these people aren't shamans, … but they're facilitators.

I guess the most acceptable way is to go back to the motherland, the jungles of South America, where it is legal and culturally sanctioned and there is a system of lodges set up to cater to Western tourists. That's probably the best way. People going down to the jungle need to find a curandero they trust, and then when they come back to the States, they're more likely to have an organic network of connections, rather than trying to toss their foot in the door of the shamanic underground.

What is the attitude in the indigenous community with this influx of people coming down from the States?
It's complicated. The first time I went down there, many of the curanderos were saying that the practice of indigenous shamanism in some areas of Peru was endangered. It's a very arduous profession, and they're groomed from an early age and kept more in isolation and on a strict diet. They're not in the normal world. So as globalization was encroaching many of the areas of Peru, much of the youth culture didn't want to do this. There was a generational disconnect where there was a danger of shamanism not being passed on, until the Westerners came down with the money and it became a very profitable enterprise. So it's continued, but the consequence of that is that everyone and their dog is putting up a shingle and calling themselves a shaman.

At some level there's a loss of innocence perhaps, of the authentic method of shamanism as it caters to Westerners. But on a larger scale, the knowledge of the medicine and Ayahuasca and shamanism is actually transplanting to  Westerners as well. Like a lot of other things in the globalized world, it's all changing very rapidly.

L.A. seems to be a hotspot for the Ayahuasca community. Do you think that's true and if so, do you have any theories about why?
Well, I am commenting as an outsider from Santa Cruz. but L.A. is a very cosmopolitan city that is also a city of early adopters who will try things out. It's not like Kansas. You're not going to have that cultural suppression or reserve. I've toured this film in six cities now, and it's been wonderful in each time, but there's still sort of a different energy in each place.

The West Coast is a lot more liberated and has the cultural history of the sixties and of the consciousness revolution. A lot of the elders who are living here are the people who were hippies in the '60s. As I say in the book, I believe that acid opened the mind of one generation, ecstasy opened the heart a generation later, and ayahuasca seems to be opening up the soul pathways now.

Do you think ayahuasca can save the world?
I tell you what, I don't think ayahuasca can save the world, but it can activate people to save themselves, and that's how we can save the world.