The Mirror of the Spirit – Ayahuasca documentary


João Meirinhos’s documentary on contemporary ayahuasca-related shamanic practices and ‘spiritual tourism’ in Peru is a classic example of a tale that grew in the telling, starting as a component in a Masters degree thesis in Visual Anthropology and expanding to become a feature-length piece. Containing much observational handheld footage, it shows curanderos collecting the raw materials and preparing the ayahuasca brew, together with scenes from ceremonies and detailed informative interviews with the curanderos themselves and Western participants who have had their lives transformed by ayahuasca, and in some cases have remained in Peru to continue working with others.

Firstly we meet the wizened old shaman Don Ignacio who combines a low key, self-effacing attitude with an impression of great wisdom and serenity; and his Turkish sidekick who cured himself of cocaine addiction through ayahuasca use. Further along the trail there are other more flamboyant shamans and a wealth of testimony from users who discuss the medicinal, philosophical and mystical aspects of the experience. They say that ayahuasca can cure around seventy percent of diseases and is particularly efficacious in treating mental problems and addictions, and also diabetes and cancer. What comes across strongly is the message that ayahuasca is not to be regarded as a recreational kick but instead as a holistic medicine effecting physical, psychological and spiritual transformation. Those who approach it as just another drug are likely to be disillusioned.

The footage is loosely edited with action sequences and interviews left to run, which works well, giving the feeling of witnessing something authentic rather than an overly manipulated version of events. As regards special effects, there is some motion blurring used to add atmosphere in the drinking ceremonies and also a full blown ‘trip sequence’ involving various montaged stock footage coupled with a soundtrack of shamanic singing and the very evocative sounds of violent retching! As the participants say, the cleansing and purifying nature of ayahuasca can be very hard on the body and is not something to be taken lightly.

Overall the documentary is a triumph, affording a detailed glimpse of the fusion of two cultural paradigms that give rise to so-called ‘ayahuasca tourism’; but also creating a body of high quality expert insight that enlarges understanding of what ayahuasca is about, and how it challenges conventional Western rationalism on almost every level in ways that cannot be dismissed as mere ‘mumbo jumbo’.

From the film-maker's five day boat ride from Pucallpa to Iquitos

From the film-maker’s five day boat ride from Pucallpa to Iquitos




Roger Keen

Roger Keen is a writer, filmmaker and film critic with a special interest in surrealism, counter-culture and psychedelia. He has contributed to many award-winning programmes for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and his short stories, articles and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and online. In 2010 Roger published The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s, a trip-lit novelistic memoir concerning his life as an art student. Using nested narratives, it is a piece of experimental ‘reality fiction’, exploring the interface between autobiography, fiction and metafiction. The recently published metacrime novel Literary Stalker takes these elements further in pure fictional form.

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