A short documentary exploring the modernization of indigenous healing practices, Wise Medicine follows a small group of strangers seeking guidance from Shipibo curanderos at the Inkan Kena plant medicine school in Peru. At the Amazonian jungle camp, the initiates are pushed to their limits as they experience firsthand the challenging plant medicine ceremonies they are being trained to facilitate. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a woman named Amara has returned from Peru to open a modern shamanic healing studio where she struggles to find balance during a major life transition. Wise Medicine is a raw portrait of individuals who choose to look outside of their culture for more meaningful sources of healing when modern medicine fails to meet their needs.
Interview with Director/Producer Deborah Libby
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Thank you! My interest in plant medicines, specifically the South American hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, began around four years ago, following a conversation with a friend who had participated in an underground ceremony. She described the ordeal as the most horrifying experience of her life, yet admitted the medicine had helped her resolve some emotional issues and come to terms with the death of her father. I was intrigued by her story and started researching psychoactive plants that grow all over the world. I found so many first person accounts and published research from institutions like Johns Hopkins and NYU on the positive physical and psychological effects of psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms), ayahuasca, and other plant-based hallucinogens. These findings contradicted the anti-drug narrative I had been taught as a child.
When I envisioned this documentary, I wanted to expose audiences to the traditional use of these earth medicines by indigenous peoples, show how the knowledge is being transferred, and also how the ceremonies are evolving and being implemented within a Western context.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
It’s fascinating to see the different ways these plants are ingested for their purgatory effects, and to get a feel for the commitment that is required to do this type of work.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
In this time of social and environmental uncertainty, the film reflects a growing attitude of many who are shifting their attention back to indigenous wisdom. I feel there is a very deep human need for physical and emotional purging through sacred ritual that lacks a proper outlet in Western culture. Many are turning to plant medicine ceremonies to fill that void.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
The first big decision was figuring out what kind of documentary this would be - observational, expert interviews, etc? I went in a few different directions and finally settled on a more observational style with limited talking heads so the experience would feel more immersive. The film was shot in Chicago and Peru, and when I began editing I tried to intuitively find the intersecting points between the two environments. It was challenging trying interweave the two stories in a way that complemented one another while still retaining an overall narrative structure. Over the course of the edit, the story naturally progressed toward two different ceremonies - one in a dark maloca in the Amazon jungle and the other in a small healing studio in an urban neighborhood. So there was this slow build up, a climax, and a release which just felt right to me. The most exciting part of the process was collaborating with my composer, Jeff Quay, on developing a score that blended the beautiful Shipibo medicine song melodies with modern rhythms.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The feedback has been extremely positive. People who I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy it have been surprisingly open, and many individuals have approached me privately to share some of their own plant medicine adventures.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
My biggest personal challenge with incorporating the feedback was finding the right balance between informing/entertaining the audience and honoring my own self expression. I really had to define my relationship to the documentary - was I making a film that I wanted people to like, or making a film that reflected what was in my heart?
After submitting the film for my MFA thesis requirement, I put it away for 4-5 months. I needed distance. But recently I’ve fired up AVID again and continue to work on the film. The extended version will be released through the website, wisemedicinemovie.com, in December.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Raising awareness about the growing global interest in plant medicines and encouraging people to come out and see the film at festivals!
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
I’d love to speak with more journalists, and of course get the film shown in more festivals. I’m just beginning to look into online distribution so could definitely use some guidance on that end.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
My biggest hope is that the film stays with audiences after they’ve watched it. It’s about planting a seed and exposing people to new ideas; maybe cracking open their minds just a tiny bit from when they walked into the theater.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Why are plant medicines attracting our attention at this moment in time?
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I’m editing a web series called America in Transition that highlights the challenges faced by trans people in marginalized communities, and shooting/assisting on various other film projects in Chicago. My two camera/sound people, Carlos Cova and Jesseca Simmons, are screening their own work at festivals around the country and tackling some exciting new projects. Jeff Quay, my composer, is the Resident Music Director and kit player for the Chicago Blue Man production. We’re all having fun and staying busy.
Interview: October 2016
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Called to the Amazon, a small group of strangers undergo an intense initiation in the ancient art of plant medicine healing, while a Chicago healer attempts to integrate the teachings back home.
About the writer, director and producer:
Deborah Libby is a documentary filmmaker exploring the evolution of ancient healing practices. She currently calls Chicago home.
distributors, film festival directors, journalists
Made in association with: