Can you tell us about the decision to put such a personal journey into a film?
Leonor Caraballo and I both have a contemporary art background. Putting personal material into the artwork is quite usual in this field. However in the high-competitive setting of the NYC art world, especially, this is not necessarily a quality. The counter party often takes the form of self-indulgence within a generalized cult for the ego which almost nobody is immune to. When in 2012 Leonor invited me to go with her to the Peruvian Amazon to drink ayahuasca for the first time, we were both suffering from these dynamics. Of course, in reality there was much more than that we had to work on to find our inner balance, but that was the official excuse we used to find the courage to disconnect, start dieting and take off on a journey to the unknown. A headlong dive into a little cup of that murky liquid changed our destinies. We met and bonded with some of the great Shipibo Conibo people, who carried us as passengers into a shamanic journey, a deep exploration of consciousness, a walk on the verge between the realm of the living and the dead. From that moment onward, life, dream and film become interwoven into something unspeakable in a way that still gives me gooseflesh. The ceremonies, the setting of the healing center, the jungle and its sounds, the Shipibo lifeway, the mighty Amazon river gave us a new sense of freedom and imagination. We knew that we were actually going to stop focusing on our silly selves and promised each other to make this film. There was collaborative storytelling and the dissolution of the ego.
We actually started working on a script about a young Indigenous shaman losing his eyesight in juxtaposition with a group of neurotic westerns too worried about their first world problems, desperately seeking a revelation, a vision.
More than a year later Leonor was diagnosed with a terminal disease. The stakes were raised. Our studio turned from the hall of the airport or a hut in the jungle into the waiting room of the hospital. That’s when we picked up the screenplay again and introduced the character of Angelina – an American traveling to the Amazon in search of a miracle – somehow to creatively embrace the dramatic condition ahead of us. The film was never meant to be autobiographical but it does reflect the context it was conceived in.
As first time filmmakers, did you ever reconsider the idea to tackle the subject or feel overwhelmed by the process of making a film?
It was definitely not easy to handle the pressure on the set. When you are first time filmmakers, everyone else in the crew is much more experienced than you are, and pretty much from day one, respect becomes something to fight for. Moreover before diving into the production, obviously we had many moments of insecurity because a stressful shoot of 5 weeks on location in the middle of the Amazon was going to be really challenging for everyone and dramatically more so for Leonor, whose cancer had already spread widely at that point. However long before becoming a film, Icaros had the shape of a dream and then of a promise. Leonor never backed down from dedicating herself to the project, animated by a superior degree of urgency: acknowledging the power of plants and the contemporary relevance of Indigenous wisdom is the only way to change the jeopardized future of the Amazon – itself like a dying patient. Her determination and all the efforts and generosity of our fantastic producer Abou Farman gave everyone else the courage to continue.
Can you talk about finishing the film?
I’ll never forget the last time cut! was pronounced on the last day of the shoot after the last take: an oneiric walk with the shamans on the beach in front of the Pacific Ocean. I looked at Leonor and she looked at me. We knew that we had accomplished something important. She was so happy.
Then back to NYC during the beginning of postproduction, the disease took over. Leonor literally continued to work until the very end, but sadly passed before seeing the film finished. The work on the infinite possibilities of an edit became our healing ritual of the crew. Together with Abou, our wonderful editor Èlia Gasull Balada and our dear friend and mentor Amir Naderi, we convened around the cut like it was a wake. That’s when we realized the potential of shamanism. Leonor continued the collaboration literally from another dimension. She kept being present within ourselves. From time to time she even visited in visions and dreams to comment and approve specific decisions. After directing up until her own death, she kept on working on her afterlife project.
We haven’t really finished yet. Icaros is just a seed, our first major collaboration with Shipibo shamans and artists that is now germinating in several other projects under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization that we constituted in the spirit of Leonor Caraballo. It was created to continue her work in this field by means of a broad unconventional approach that distinguished her throughout her life, death and artistic practice: the Shipibo Conibo Center of NY.
Do you think using special effects in the film was the best way to explore consciousness for viewers?
I don’t think special effects have a big role in the film. After deeply researching Amazonian myths and iconography, we realized that most of the magical elements actually existed among the wonders of the forest. So we really tried to make the best use of the context, for example, using underwater footage of river dolphins to represent legendary underwater beings. Moreover we wanted to re-invent the esthetic of the psychedelic, avoiding the clichés of the colorful motifs of the 60’s. Ayahuasca is said to be a spiritual x-ray machine, or the television of the forest. With these ideas in mind, in order to picture the experience of the ceremony, we played with the devices that in the West are used to generate visions: MRI, TV, video game, ophthalmologist’s tools, etc. This is a statement that aims to place ayahuasca on the same level with these other technologies.
Can you describe the production itself when you were on location?
The cast and crew were all lodging on location in the healing center, and perhaps that was the reason for the main difficulties we encountered. The obstacles have been humongous, as hard as pushing a ship to the other side of a mountain, given that we were shooting in the surrounding of the city of Iquitos, where Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo was shot. This is a city that is not connected to the outside world by roads. The only way to reach it is by plane or upriver by boat. The film’s heavy equipment was hijacked by drug dealers on a barge moving up the Ucayali River on its way to the set. We had to begin shooting without grip, lights, generator, tripods, etc., readjusting and readjusting a very tight shooting schedule since the very first day. Meanwhile, the barge was sequestered by the naval marine, and the production crew finally rescued the equipment truck late one night. On the way back, around 2 a.m., the production van crashed into a dark gigantic water buffalo standing in the middle of the road. The buffalo walked off. We had to replace the van. Finally, the jungle had the ability to bring out from within everybody his or her deepest fears. For example, the production manager, who is scared of spiders, found a family of tarantulas nesting in her bed. The shamans played a great role in keeping everyone’s energy under control. The shooting schedule was designed around two real ceremonies and the full moon. We wanted to give the opportunity to the actors to develop their characters after a personal experience on ayahuasca. While we were directing the shamans on set, they were directing us in the ceremonies…