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FARZIN TOUSSI: THE MEDICINE (2019)

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What the famous natural psychedelic jagé might do for yanquis

This little documentary, The Medicine, directed by Ferzin Toussi, serves as an introduction to, and promotional film for, jagé or ayajuasca, the ancient and traditional hallucinogenic preparation, a brew that is drunk. We're advised not to call it a drug but a sacred medicine. Fans of William S. Burroughs, like me, remember The Yage Letters, an early epistolary work, mostly dating from 1953 but published by City Lights Books in 1963 and consisting of exchanges, largely fabricated, between Burroughs and the much younger Allen Ginsberg, who was his early coach and inspiration. It recounts Burroughs' trip to Ecuador seeking to explore for himself the preparation's almost mythical properties while, he hoped, getting off junk (heroin). So, for him, the best and most non-addictive methadone. It's a Schedule 1 drug and hence illegal in the US, but not shown to be habit forming. Cannabis is Schedule 1 too and also supposedly non habit forming, but I've known quite a few people who had a wicked pot habit, including me, which is why I'd steer clear of ayahuasca however extensive its beneficial properties. Burroughs apparently kept using heroin all his long life. At least it didn't kill him. He was lucky.

DMT — or N, N-dimethyltryptamine in medical talk — is a hallucinogenic tryptamine drug. Sometimes referred to as Dimitri, this drug produces effects similar to those of psychedelics, like LSD and magic mushrooms. A Healthline entry provides warnings on its use. DMT, they say, is best avoided if you have high blood pressure, are not in a good frame of mind, or unstable, or when you're alone.

Ayahuasca is traditionally prepared using two plants whose botanical names are Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis. The latter contains DMT while the former contains MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, the ingredients of antidepressants), which prevent certain enzymes in your body from breaking down DMT and hence prolong the process, the high.

DMT is only the most obviously separable chemical element. According to this film, jagé is much more than that - not only a combination of two plants whose interaction is special and complex, but a sacred indigenous ritual whose history can be traced back at least 4,000 years. It may be the most interesting and sexy, if a bit obvious, subject for an ethnobotanical study: examining all the endless ramifications of how a plant with an important role in a culture interrelates with everyday life. I learned about this field from my longtime friend and tireless correspondent Dorothy Kamen-Kaye, who studied the role of chimò in Latin America under the guidance of the famous Harvard ethnobotonist Richard Schultes, who was profiled in The New Yorker by E.J. Kohn ("Jungle Botonist") in 1992. This film, unfortunately, isn't Dr. Schultes' kind of study, in fact not a study at all. It's more like a shiny, many-colored advertisement for jagé or ayajuasca, leading up to showing how rich celebrity visitors may benefit from it too - and maybe you. William Burroughs wandered alone. Now there are group tours and arranged accommodations.

In The Medicine we meet Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy, an Inga (Putomayo, Colombia region) shaman or spirit guide (the meaning of "taita" is guide, healer, shaman). A pleasant-seeming fellow whose 109-year-old grandfather was a taita, Taita Juanito represents the local culture where jagé appears to retain a central and traditional role. We hear more from the longhaired, colorfully dressed, Spanish-speaking Taita Juanito here and there through the film. He's identified by a voice-off narrator as one "of a long line of ethnobotanists." Nice idea, but ethonobotanists are (aren't they?) usually detached scientists, not practitioners like Taita Juanito. Anyway, we hear from white putative experts as well, most of whom are advocates.

It is Dr. Mauricio Diazgranados, research leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a Colombian specialist in plant biodiversity, who first introduces yagé or jagé (he gives two alternate pronunciations), as "a very deep tradition from several ethnic groups, specially in the Amazon forest." Incidentally, he believes that plants of different species talk to each other. It's British author Graham Hancock who cites archeological evidence of jagé's use going back at least 4,000 years. Finca Ambiwasi, we learn, a settlement some two hours outside Bogotà, is an outpost of a surviving ancient culture where the ayahuasca ceremony is central. And there we meet Taita Juanito and three of his "students" or disciples.

From New York, introduced with the first of a series of colorful, high-speed photo-montages, this time a blend of fast cars, buildings, a pug-nosed dog, and glorious opening and closing biological pod things, comes author Daniel Pinchbeck, who says with psychedelics the "brain sort of lights up like a switchboard" and "normally dormant areas are suddenly in communication with each other." He cites a theory that there is a "default mode network" that gives us our "circumscribed ego-identity" - but is neutralized by ayahuasca, thus leading, as an aftereffect, to more brain connections, more innovative thinking, more creativity. Some rather nice, sharp, high-speed psychedelic-type imagery accompanies Pinchbeck's words and follows them, like an afterglow. Good visuals, a good correlative, perhaps, for an experience on hallucinogens, and there are more of them later. But how do those visuals relate to the soothing of PTSD, the connecting-up of brain segments leading to new perceptions these advocates allude to?

Dr. Diazgranados explains the first ingredient of jagé, Banisteriopsis caapi, is a vine, and we see men sorting and bagging its thick, gnarly branches. We see others sorting and gathering the plant, Psychotria viridis, a leafy shrub. This plant is the one that contains the hallucinogenic alkaloids, though the name comes from the vine.

Toussi and his writer, Colet Abedi, aren't as eager to explore how specifically this combination might work and why it's unique as they are simply to recommend that we yanquis consider trying it for our northern white urban ills. Rachel Harris, Ph.D., , author of Listening to Ayahuasca, recommends the mixture for depression, addiction, PTSD, and other contemporary problems. We hear a gentleman fromRhythmia Life Enhancement Center, a "Shaman healing meditation resort" in Costa Rica, where people apparently pay to get high with jagé and promote their "synaptic plasticity," the "lighting up like a switchboard" of the brain on jagé Mr. Pinchbeck referred to. Its CEO says jagé is "the answer." (He would.) Scientific evidence of changed brain states is suggested by Spanish neuropsychopharmacological researcher Jordi Riba. A sort of photo of the brain is even shown, but scientific evidence of these claims is not provided.

Glamorous testimonials come from former NFL star Kerry Rhode, who looks to jagé for motivational help and restoration of damaged brain cells from concussions on the playing field, and model, actress and rape survivor AnnaLynne McCord, who comes (with more skepticism) looking to gain more openness and wholeness through the experience. They turn out to be clients of Rhythmia who are tended personally by Taita Juanito. (There is another spiritual healing resort in Costa Rica, I find, called Soltara Healing Center. But it's closed right now, due to the pandemic.)

At this point the film begins to take on a "welcome to. . . " promotional air, as well as feeling, oddly, uncomfortably intimate, all of which begins to make it a little hard to take. I am glad Taita Juanito doesn't let the actual consumption of the jagé be filmed. We just get the sounds, with blackness, then psychedelic visuals.

The Medicine is an indication of the new favor hallucinogenic drugs are held in. Bilge Eberi says in his Spirituality & Health review (the only comment on this film I found online) that there's a lot of "woo-woo" lately about this "brew." He thought it "refreshing to learn about the scientific grounding behind its effects." Ebiri finds the "visual style" of this film "dry," due to the talking heads, forgetting its handsome psychedelic visual interludes. That psychedelics have a strong effect on the brain was never in doubt. As scientific proof of the therapeutic value of ajahuasca/jage, the pointedly titled The Medicine is clearly biased and highly dubious.

I'd like to hear what old Bill Burroughs would say about turning the jagé trail into a guided tour. There are jagé resorts offering a pick of different blends of the medicine and a choice of Taitas in Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru. Maybe other "spiritual healing resorts" will sponsor their own competing films.

The Medicine, 85 mins., debuted at Spirit Film Festival and Guadalajara in Mar. 2019 and premiered at the TCL Chinese 6 Theater in Los Angeles Aug. 28, 2019. It becomes available digital and on demand July 7, 2020.

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