(2019) Documentary (1091) Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy, AnnaLynne McCord, Kerry Rhodes, Graham Hancock, Daniel Pinchbeck, Mauricio Diazgranados, Rachel Harris, Mitra, Carlos Duran, Jeff McNair, Leonardo Cordero, Ricardo Diaz Mayorga, Jordi Riba, Stuart Townsend (narrator), Adrianna Jairsagua, Brandee Powell. Directed by Farzin Toussi
Ayahuasca is considered a dangerous drug here in the United States; it is illegal here. In the Amazon, however, it is an ancient plant concoction that has deep spiritual connotations; not only is it thought to be a means of seeing into another realm (it is certainly a hallucinogenic), it also heals spiritual, emotional and even physical ailments – it is thought that ayahuasca can actually regenerate brain cells, something modern science is unable to accomplish.
Deep in the forests of Colombia are the Inga people, directly descended from the Incas of Peru. They live pretty much the same way as their ancestors did, relying on the bounty of the rain forest to sustain them. Their wisdom comes from the natural world rather than the modern one. Their Taita (a term that encompasses a number of functions, including spiritual leader, medicine man and chief) but is usually one granted to older men. Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy is something of a rarity; a Taita who was deemed so as a teen, he remains a vibrant young man with a gentle sense of humor.
For those who think that those native tribes to the rain forest are ignorant savages, think again; Taita Juanito has an impressive knowledge of botany, easily equivalent to a PhD. He believes that the ecological disasters are nature’s way of reacting to decades of abuse by humans and he might just have a point. Contributing to it is the rash of hatred that permeates Western culture recently.
Toussi utilizes several scientists (like staff botanist Mauricio Diazgranados from Kew Gardens in London, the pre-eminent botanical garden on the planet) to describe the science behind the spirituality; it turns out that ayahuasca isn’t a single plant but made up as a brew of two distinctive plants; one containing the hallucinogen, the other helping deliver it to the brain cells and retain it there (the effect of the ayahuasca vine by itself is only momentary by itself).
For much of the latter half of the film, we follow the journey of two American celebrities – former NFL defensive back Kerry Rhodes and actress/activist AnnaLynne McCord. The former is trying to connect with his emotions, something frowned upon in football culture; he is also concerned about the effects multiple concussions may have had on his brain and hopes that ayahuasca will mitigate them. As for McCord, she was physically and sexually abused at a younger age and now has difficulty forming romantic connections and emotional intimacy.
Both undergo the ayahuasca ritual with varying results; Rhodes seems more receptive to it and went back for several more treatments. McCord, who had a suspicion of mind-altering drugs to begin with (she doesn’t use recreational drugs or alcohol) seemed less so. Taita Juanito allowed part of the ritual to be filmed, although once the ayahuasca was introduced he would allow only audio recording.
There is some beautiful cinematography of the forest, as you’d expect. One thing I found a little bit bizarre is that the filmmakers note that they resent the lumping of ayahuasca as a drug, with the negative connotations that come with it; yet when. discussing the effects of it, they use psychedelic imagery more common with depictions of LSD usage. The images are pretty trippy, though.
Unlike other documentaries on ayahuasca, there is more of a scientific grounding here. Yes, a good number of the talking heads here are students of Taita Juanito – some might say disciples – who seem a little redundant when you have Juanito himself available. There is no doubt that he’s a wise man, one with a bit of impishness to him and not at all what you would visualize when the word “shaman” is mentioned.
Particularly early on, the movie is kind of jumbled and a little hard to follow. Eventually it settles down, concentrating on McCord and Rhodes and their interactions with Taita Juanito. The movie would have benefitted from better organization and a little less hagiographic interviews.
The debate about ayahuasca in this country remains not a debate at all; while pharmaceutical companies have been looking into the substance, there has been no serious studies done on it nor does there seem to be a serious movement to have it reclassified. Ayahuasca treatments will remain, for Americans, the domain of the rich and daring. The benefits of the plants in the Amazon are likely to be game-changers, although given the current Brazilian regime the Amazon basin is being handled as a place for exploitation. As time goes by, the shrinking rain forest may see an end to the culture of these indigenous tribes, perhaps in the lifetimes of some of our younger readers. All of that knowledge would then be lost and knowledge lost is always a human tragedy.
REASONS TO SEE: Taita Juanito is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really a linear documentary; organized in kind of a scattershot way.
FAMILY VALUES: There is – I gotta say it – drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ayahuasca is listed in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug which indicates no medical benefit, despite never having been tested for such.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Where Sleeping Dogs Lie