Matteo Norzi Reflects on His Film ‘Icaros’ and Whether It Encourages Ayahuasca Tourism

Icaros are the chants that Amazonian shamans sing to guide passengers during Ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca, also known as yagé, is that vine of the spirits, vine of the dead; the plant-based brew that promises spiritual enlightenment when drunk. Icaros is also the name of Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi’s directorial debut, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The film, Icaros: a Vision tells the story of Angelina, an American woman who, after being diagnosed with cancer and exhausting all of her medical options, immerses herself in the Amazonian jungle, searching for a miracle. The miracle is contained in that murky Ayahuasca liquid: a cure for addiction, depression, and even the fear of death. The actress Taylor Marie Milton, who plays a psychonaut in the film, is now hosting Ayahuasca retreats in Peru herself. She talks about how spreading the knowledge of this medicine and making it popular is encouraging westerners to go on their own spiritual journey in the Amazon. She describes an awakening, a ripple effect. But this kind of tourism is already creating another type of ripple effect, where traditions are degraded and transformed in order to fit western expectations and make more money. And who’s really making money? It’s extremely important to preserve this indigenous knowledge, to attribute it with the value and respect that it deserves, but at what cost? What about the inexperienced gringos hosting fancy retreats that end in tragedy? It’s all still an unknown, and the many ways in which this mystery could unravel can be exciting, but scary at the same time.

We sat down with Matteo Norzi to talk about the relationship between performance and tradition, psychedelic tourism, and his vision of the Amazon of the future.

I know this film was inspired by your personal experience in the Amazon. How much of it is autobiographical and how much is fiction?

The first time that we went to Peru we started working on the idea of a film about an apprentice shaman that was going blind in juxtaposition with westerners looking for a vision. So the very first journey inspired the core of the film, and that’s when we decided to use non-professional actors to play themselves. Later in the preproduction of the film, Leonor got diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, but she decided to continue on the project. So on one hand we obviously raised the stakes of the project, and on the other, we decided to incorporate the character of Angelina, who’s an American woman who goes to the Amazon looking for a miracle. Both the journey to Peru and the Ayahuasca journeys inspired us to make the film.

Something technical that was very impressive was the way you shot in the dark jungle. Sometimes candles and matches seem to be the only source of light. Was that challenging?

It was really difficult. Our director of photography Ghasem Ebrahimian is a master of light. The Ayahuasca ceremonies needed to happen in complete darkness, and it’s never been filmed that way before. We tried to be very respectful; we played with soft lights and reflectors in order to be able to have the camera see in the dark.

How did you manage to get permission to film these sacred ceremonies with actual shamans?

Well, I wouldn’t call it sacred. We’ve been working with these shamans for years in preparation of the film. It’s not like we took them by surprise with our cameras inside the maloka. Shamans themselves are performers, so the healing process is also a show; they sing, and they perform different actions inside the stage of the maloka. For the Shipibo, Ayahuasca is not a religion, it’s something more connected to treating a patient, and to collective vision making. I don’t think the concept of “sacred” applies to this practice, even if I obviously respect the spiritual power of the plant. But the spirit is nothing but the condition of alteration that your consciousness experiences through the ingestion of the plant itself. The spirit is the formation of your perception, nothing more than that, in my opinion.

Did the non-actors get to see the film? Did they have any say during the filmmaking process?

Not yet because their visa was denied. This is the world premiere and they were supposed to be here with us and they weren’t able to attend, so we’ll bring the film to Peru. It was a strange collaboration because as directors we tried to guide the shamans, while as shamans they were guiding us through the experience of shamanism. It wasn’t really an exchange by conversation: it was an exchange and a balance that was found through letting go, through opening up to both experiences.

What was it like to film in Shipibo, a language that you don’t speak?

The film was fully scripted. Even the Shipibo parts were scripted. They speak Spanish with us but they speak Shipibo amongst themselves, so we tried to keep that condition as it happens in real life. That’s how we wanted it to be on the script. We wrote in Spanish and in Shipibo, and they practiced it.

You’ve said that you’re concerned that the Amazon is being exploited for its oil, but what if it also starts to be exploited for its other natural resources, like Ayahuasca? It’s happened before, as with the coca leaf in Bolivia, or the mushrooms in Mexico. Once you open that door —

Of course, it’s a risk and it’s happening right now. There’s a tourism that’s going on there. There’s going to be an opportunity, if the players are able to take the challenge, but it’s also going to be a risk. But overall I think it’s a positive thing, because it’s a good way for indigenous communities to find their own spot in the contemporary time. They have something to say that’s valued today. And there is no tradition we need to preserve: this is happening now, it’s about performance, it’s about something that’s alive, not about something that’s to be kept in a museum.

But wouldn’t you agree that by bringing other players — like western tourists and pharmaceutical companies — into this ancient tradition, the dynamic will change?

The thing that backs me here is that we cannot bring the actors to Tribeca and any American tourist can go to Peru. It’s not reciprocal. So what we want to try to do is to make the confrontation more reciprocal so that the indigenous communities can also be active in this exchange. I think that would solve most of the problems, if we’re able to make it happen. The search for the authentic doesn’t lead to anything. There isn’t such a thing. It’s an endless search. It’s just a cliché that we have in our minds that there’s something authentic to find. Everything is bastard, shamanism has been changing since it was born, and there’s no tradition to be put in a museum and glorified. There’s a practice of some sort of connection with nature, the earth, and the spirit world that needs to happen again.

But for example in the ’50s an American banker participated in psychedelic mushroom ceremonies led by shaman María Sabina in Mexico. He convinced Sabina to let him take pictures for his ‘personal use,’ but published them on Life magazine. Suddenly the Beatles come to Oaxaca! I love how you show in your film how you have to prepare for a ceremony: no sex, no red meat, no other drugs for a few weeks before the ritual. There’s a way to do it, a certain understanding required for the experience. But chaos erupted! Hippies invaded this indigenous community, they were having sex in the fields, smoking weed and doing mushrooms. Eventually the military had to drive the hippies out, and the dynamics in the Mazatec community were forever changed. So, even though in your film Ayahuasca is portrayed as a spiritual medicine, there are bored hipsters in Brooklyn who’ll say: “Let’s go to the jungle and do some Ayahuasca man!”

[An actor from the film, Filippo Timi, interjects]

“But these are stupid people!”

Yeah, it would be great if only smart people with the best spiritual intentions were allowed in the Amazon.

The reason why it became sacred is that the Catholic Church was against it, so people started doing this practices hidden. But it’s not sacred in itself, it’s actually a community practice; the maloka, which is where the ceremony takes place, is also used for political exchange during the day. I imagine a future in which there will be a multiplex with different ceremonies taking place in all the big cities. Just like how you go to the cinema today. I feel that shamanism has a role in the future. The way people are going to experience storytelling in the next 50 years is through technology, virtual reality, and drugs. So it’s not about protecting something that’s coming from the past, it’s about realizing that that’s where we’re going, with our interests and our scientists and our anthropologists, and our mass media. It’s very typical that the psychedelic experience leads to an expanded interest for the environment, and I think it’s positive in the end. It’s a way of dissolving your ego and understanding that we’re part of something bigger.

Yes, the question is that Amazon of the Future that you talk about. We can speculate, but we don’t really know what that will look like. We’re just opening doors right? Your film is opening this door and giving agency to these people.

It’s opening the door to a mystery that’s still a mystery even after so many experiences, a mystery for us as well.

Exactly, Ayahuasca itself is not the issue. I don’t doubt its extraordinary properties. It’s like how those exotic Amazonian fruits that have various health benefits are packaged and exported to fancy supermarkets in America. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s good but it would be important that the business that you’re describing would benefit the local community. Very often it’s exploitative, even from an economical point of view. It’s a take that doesn’t give much back, even if the final product is very expensive here in New York. What I’m saying is that I wish that there was a possibility to encourage a fair trade with the indigenous people, who are the holders of the knowledge of what to harvest and how to prepare it, so that they can continue passing the knowledge on to the next generation, and make a living out of it. It’s good as long as it’s economically and socially sustainable as a practice, but it’s very difficult.