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Sunday, 6 January 2008

Ayahuasca tourism vs. traditional uses, and an online collaborative documentary

When I was invited last year to give a talk a the 3rd Amazonian Shamanism Conference I had no idea what I'd talk about. I had been invited because Jimmy Weiskopf recommened me to Alan Shoemaker, and he had liked some of the chacra diaries so I figured I'd talk a bit about amazonian dietas, a bit about the documentary project, and I'd use the chance to see if I could find people who'd like to help in a collaborative online documentary we've been thinking about for some time. Kind of like Echo chamber project, but different.

The project

The problem we have is that: 1- We have picked a huge topic (which keeps on growing! entheogens, traditional medicine, the link between health and spirituality, the colonization of the Americas and the new cultures that resulted form it, etc etc) and 2- The idea of trying to compress all that material into a standard-size 45-minute documentary, full of soundbite-size statements runs a real danger of over-simplification. You can't explain uses/misuses/abuses of ayahuasca, mention the churches, delve a bit into traditional medicine, what is happening to curanderos and what that says about western culture (and the failings of scientific medicine!) biopiracy, cultural appropriation... and of course reflect a bit on the part of us that actually gets touched by ayahuasca, and what that says about what it means to be human.

See? It doesn't fit in 1 hour, not without making a joke of everything.

So we started playing with a different idea, a sort of gigantic online video archive where we would dump all the tapes, and people could consult at their own pace, without middle men.

But how would people navigate around hours of video?

We needed: an indexing system, a tagging system, and a navigational interface.

Basically all the interviews would be transcribed (word by word), and all videos indexed/tagged (by topic). It would be just like the index at the back of a book, where you can find where certain topics are mentioned and jump to that page. I imagined an interactive index of all the videos, so that people interested on a certain topic could find all the interviews/parts where that topic was mentioned and go there. The interface could even queue the video segments for viewing one after another.

Once you have that built, you have a system to generate movies automatically. You are doing what an editor does with the raw video material (well, almost), but dynamically, on-the-fly. Any path can be transversed though the set of raw materials. So why not predefine a few? We could make a couple of documentaries (the one hour version, the five hour version, etc) and leave them as preset "paths" through the archive, also as starting points. Did you like what someone said during the doc? Would you like to hear the rest? You could jump out of the path, see as much as you wanted of the original interview, and then return. Would you like to see who else talked about that topic just mentioned? You could, etc.


That is more or less the new plan, it's a long project, but I am in no hurry. I see this pretty much as a life-long project. And I believe someone will program a platform that does exactly this sooner or later. It doesn't seem too complicated, basically it's a database that has tape numbers, and uses timecodes to mark in and out for transcribed text (word by word, very good for subtitles later) and in and out time codes for topic and/or tags. It should be fairly easy to give those time codes to a player (quicktime etc) and it would queue them for you. If no one gets around to do it I guess we will.

Sounds interesting? I am looking for volunteer programmers, designers, and very importantly transcribers. I need people to help me put into writing the dozens of hours of interviews I have with some of the most interesting people in the ayahuasca world. Including Benny Shanon, Johnatan Ott, Jacques Mabit, Luis Eduardo Luna, Ralph Metzner, Richard Yensen, Antonio Escohotado, Josep Maria Fericgla, dozens of curanderos, mestres and members of the 3 main Brazilian Ayahuasca churches, psychologists who use the brew to get people off drugs, former drug addicts, and a host of people from all walks of life whose lives have been touched by their encounter ayahuasca, plus rituals, masses, preparations, healing sessions, seminars, detox centers... the list goes on and on.

If you are interested in ayahuasca and you can type fast and you will probably enjoy the work, the interviews are really well worth it.



Back to the talk

That was more on less on my mind for the talk. At the Conference I met some very good people, but in Iquitos there is also a side of Ayahuasca that I actively try to avoid: Cunning locals looking for a quick buck (chamán + charlatán = charlamán) and/or sincere but (in my opinion) misguided westerners of new age-ish leanings.

Now, if you are interested entheogens chances are you too have what others would describe as new age-ish leanings, I certainly do, but some people are just more new age than others, I guess, and some people are just too new age for me. Which is normal, everybody knows somebody who they think "goes too far" into whatever. In life you'll always meet people you click with and people you can´t get along with. Attitudes you approve and attitudes you disapprove. It is perfectly normal (actually it is unavoidable) it happens in any field of human activity. There is no way out of it.

...And certainly in this world everybody should be able to pursue their own individual bliss as they see fit.

But that week in Iquitos I saw people that in my opinion were not properly prepared, make a farce, a theater play, out of something I respect and love very much, the work and practices of Amazonian curanderismo. All in order to feel better about themselves in front of people who didn't know any better (and get some of their money.) It wasn't necessarily in the conference, there was plenty of worthwhile people there, but some of it was around it, and that mix of the good and the bad is certainly an integral part of Iquitos ayahuasca scene.

So when the time came for my talk I though I'd try to clarify a few misconceptions that seemed rampant in the western-ayahuasca-seekers world (of which I am undeniably part of) Not to tell people what to think, but just communicate a few facts I found useful when facing "amazonian shamanism". Basically I wanted to:

1-Talk about how our western interest (read money) in shamanism is changing it from what it was, to what we would like to be.

2-Put shamans/curanderos first in their proper context:
a) As traditional doctors who practice a form of *medicine*, neither saints (they can be very flawed) nor proper gurus or spiritual guides (that is a different job, from a different culture) and
b) as *professionals* of their field, the result of years of training, not a few weeks or month long "courses" (This weekend-course format is perhaps the most defining factor of all things new age: they all seem to take place in the form of "courses")

3-Ask for some help with the doc project.

Below is a short reduction of the talk



the full talk can be seen here.

You be the judge as to how well I managed to get points 1 and 2 across. As to point 3 I was almost a complete failure. Only Susan offered help (thanks Susan!) She's helped me quite a bit already and I don't like to bother volunteers in excess. So, if you'd like to help with the project write to





If you wouldn't like to help but are interested on the topic of the appropriation of indigenous knowledge I recommend

Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances

Selling Native Spirituality

We do not have shamans

Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality

Newagefrauds has some updated forums full of denunciations, they take a very hard line and their positions are controversial even among some Native Americans. Indeed the whole topic is full of heated arguments Here used to be another popular forum, but the person who was running got tired of all the threats she received and decided to shut it down. Some of her parting words were:

"Let me make my position clear - I am not against non-Indians participating in ceremony. I know that puts me at odds with a probably rather large portion of the Native community. But if you are going to participate - do it in a safe and respectful manner. Please - wait until you've been invited by a member from a legitimate community. Don't pay, and look out for a few simple things that will let you know if you supposed Medicine Man/Woman is genuine or not. Do they speak the language of the people they claim to be from? Do they do these ceremonies back home for the people they claim to be from? Do they ask for money upfront - either as a "love offering" or any other "suggested donation."


I guess she meant something like this crap $90 down and $5 a month will get you adopted as a "Native American Medicine Man or Woman"

Utterly shameless (or shameon)

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