Interview: 'The Shaman and The Scientist' Director Sarah Hutt on Her New Documentary
The Shaman and The Scientist, a new documentary from director Sarah Hutt, is an in-depth exploration of how very different sorts of doctors see plant-based medicines like the psychoactive Ayahuasca plant.
Playing at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival this weekend, the documentary focuses on two people: Dr. Dennis McKenna, a modern expert in ethnopharmacology (the study and comparison of traditional medicines) and Don Juan Tangoa Paima, a practitioner of Ayahuasca in Peru. And by collecting those different perspectives on these drugs, it becomes a fascinating look into medicines and the cultures that exist around them.
Outer Places reached out to Hutt for an exclusive interview:
Outer Places: Could you talk a little about yourself, and what drew you to a project like The Shaman and The Scientist?
Sarah Hutt: I spent most of my career as a documentary television producer doing investigative series and covering science, engineering, and social issues. I also write non-fiction books for children and young adults and more recently have been using documentary storytelling to create engaging online courses in the EdTech space, but when I started The Shaman and The Scientist I was a very green young producer and, to be honest, I mostly just wanted to explore the world.
I had been traveling in the Amazon as a tourist and I heard about Dennis McKenna's research looking for new plant medicines to treat mental illness, through a contact I made in Iquitos, Peru. It sounded fascinating. Dennis' plan was to interview local curanderos, practitioners who work with plant medicine, to dig up leads on interesting plants whose traditional or folk uses indicated they might have an effect on the central nervous system. The idea was then to track down these plants, take them to a lab to see what's there.
To me, it was like an ethnobotanical detective story and I wanted to document it.
OP: What are some of the different perspectives on traditional medicine vs. modern medicine that you explore in the documentary?
Hutt: As a short documentary, this film only scratches the surface of an extremely rich topic that I hope viewers will continue to explore on their own. But I think the most obvious difference in the two perspectives is the notion of tending to the soul. What I learned from Don Juan Tangoa Paima, the curandero who generously allowed me to interview and observe him, is that most of the work he does is in the realm of the spirit or soul. In this shamanic view, spiritual maladies can manifest as physical maladies so it's equally important to factor in the state of one's spiritual health as well as their physical health when devising treatments.
There is some really interesting research right now looking at traditional medicines and the ceremonial aspects of that healing process for people dealing with conditions like PTSD and addiction. I think this is an area where traditional medicine with its focus on the whole person, body and soul, may prove highly effective in certain cases. I'm interested to see how this research develops.
OP: Between this and your previous work, are there any common themes that you're drawn to as a filmmaker?
Hutt: I don't think the projects I've worked on fit into a very tidy box, that's part of the nature of being a freelance producer, but it's also because I have broad interests and an enduring curiosity about the world.
I do know that I am fascinated by people who are dedicated to something - scientists, shamans, explorers, engineers, craftspeople, artists, activists, teachers. It's a privilege to be able to make career getting to know incredible people, asking them questions, getting a deeper understanding of how they see the world and what they know, and then be able to translate those ideas into stories. I love it. I love capturing those moments of truth, of life unfolding, of people on their journey, working away totally dedicated to an idea or to the potential of something. I find that endlessly fascinating and inspiring.
OP: What was your stance on traditional medicine like Ayahuasca before you started working on the documentary? Would you say it changed at all while filming?
Hutt: Frankly, I had never heard of Ayahuasca before I started this film. I started this project over ten years ago and Ayahuasca wasn't in the popular conversation the way I think it is today. Perhaps I'm more aware of it now that I have spent time interested in this topic, but it seems to have bubbled up into the more mainstream consciousness. So my opinion didn't change, it's more like I got an amazing introduction to the topic by observing and learning about it first hand in its traditional context.
And by traditional context, I don't mean in a remote village out in the jungle somewhere. Don Juan, the curandero in my film, lives in the city of Iquitos, Peru near the airport and at the time we filmed, he had regular ceremonies in his house for people in his neighborhood. People would come to see him for all manner of complaints the way that most of us go to a doctor. It seemed to be a common practice that was well integrated into modern life for many people. What I mean by "traditional" is seeing how Don Juan uses Ayahuasca and the ceremony itself as a diagnostic tool to help him identify the spiritual or physical source of someone's complaint.
I got to experience the beautiful and varied Icaros or healing songs he uses in the ceremonies for treatment, and perhaps most importantly, I got to learn the importance of what happens after the ceremony, the follow up and the fact that Ayahuasca medicine is not in and of itself a cure, it is used in combination with a diet and may be dispensed along with other plant medicines as part of a longer course of treatment depending on the issue.
I think this piece is a really important part of any discussion of Ayahuasca that doesn't always filter into the conversation.
OP: What are you working on next?
Hutt: I have a small company that does story consulting and content creation for different mediums, so I've got a few things in the works for very different platforms. I have a book with the non-profit Girls Who Code coming out in March, I'm in production on a children's podcast for Panoply, and I am continuing my work in EdTech using documentary to teach.
As far as independent projects, I am really interested in combing my love of documentary and non-fiction writing in short form multi-media pieces. I'm developing a series of multi-media profiles to take viewers inside the minds of scientists at or close to breakthroughs on big impact problems. My first is an incredible lady who's been working on an HIV vaccine since the original NYC outbreak, which means she has been working on this puzzle for more than 30 years and has an incredible scientific and personal story that I hope I will be able to help her share.
The Shaman and The Scientist is playing at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival this Saturday, February 24 at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan, New York. Tickets are available here.