In recent years, the traditional or ceremonial use of psychoactive plants has become a topic of intense interest. Ayahuasca, a plant brew used in some South American indigenous cultures, has attracted widespread global attention. As ayahuasca’s public profile has increased, filmmakers have begun publicizing historical perspectives and first-hand experiences of the beverage’s cultural significance and potential health benefits.
Here are eight must-watch documentaries you should check out if you’re interested in learning about the history and impact of this psychedelic jungle brew:
- The Sacred Science
- From Shock to Awe
- Léa & I
- The Reality of Truth
- Drinking the Jungle
- The Last Shaman
- Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics
Each of these documentaries covers different aspects of past and present ayahuasca use. While some of the films focus on the context of ayahuasca within traditional cultural contexts, others explore the numerous physical and psychological health benefits that people all over the world have experienced in recent years.
This list of documentaries presents a range of perspectives from both experts and the average person in describing the past, present, and future implications of the consumption of ayahuasca. Keep reading to find out what each of these documentaries have to offer.
The Sacred Science
Directed by Nick Polizzi and released in 2011, this documentary is among the earlier wave of films chronicling Westerners’ experiences of ayahuasca. The Sacred Science, now also the name of a subsequent book by Polizzi and an associated online educational series, follows eight individuals who want to take part in ayahuasca ceremonies to potentially cure their various illnesses. The participants suffer from a range of conditions, including depression, Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Unlike in the other films on this list that follow shorter ayahuasca retreats, the eight subjects of this documentary remain at a Peruvian retreat center in the Amazon for an entire month.
In addition to dealing with their specific ailments, the eight participants also use the retreat as an opportunity to explore their spiritual and psychological understanding of themselves and the world around them. The film’s gritty realism offers a valuable set of first-hand accounts of ayahuasca use.
While some return from the trip with measurable health improvements, others are not so fortunate. In this sense, the documentary is one of the most balanced and realistic films available. Watching this documentary will expose you to a wide spectrum of ayahuasca experiences, which makes it a valuable viewing experience for anyone interested in the ongoing debate over ayahuasca’s potential benefits. If your interest has been piqued, The Sacred Science is available to stream for free on Tubi or Kanopy.
From Shock to Awe
This 2018 documentary follows the personal journey of two military veterans seeking relief from the trauma they suffered as a result of their time in combat. Both men have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have had little success in healing their mental wounds within the confines of traditional Western medicine.
Out of a combination of hope and desperation, the two men decide to take part in a weekend ayahuasca ceremony. Through the film, they share their experiences dealing with the overwhelming depression and anxiety of living with PTSD and the life-threatening issues they’ve faced, along with a discussion of the failed pharmaceutical treatments they’ve been prescribed.
The film takes an interesting approach to ayahuasca by presenting recent scientific evidence that suggests that psychedelics may be a viable path to healing PTSD.
By focusing specifically on how ayahuasca can treat one condition for just two people, the documentary is able to offer an in-depth look into the brew’s impact on these men’s lives. The film showcases the aftermath of the retreat as the men integrate their experiences into their normal lives, with a particularly powerful impact on their personal relationships.
If you’re interested in seeing how these men navigate this challenging journey. From Shock to Awe is available for rent or purchase on a variety of platforms, including iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.
Léa & I
Léa & I (2019) follows the travels of two best friends through South America. The two women, Léa and Camille, are motivated by an interest in understanding alternative forms of healing in search of a cure for Léa’s suffering in relation to a terminal illness, cystic fibrosis.
After finishing college, Léa and Camille decide to travel to Peru to seek answers in shamanism and its use of psychedelic plant brews and medicines. They are driven by the hope of extending Léa’s life expectancy, which is roughly 37 years for those with her condition.
Written and produced by Camille, the film documents their experiences at an ayahuasca retreat, as well as other explorations of medicines traditionally used by indigenous South American communities. This high-stakes, personal take on an ayahuasca documentary is available on Netflix via subscription.
The Reality of Truth
Directed by Laurent Levy and Mike Zapolin and released in 2016, this documentary isn’t solely about ayahuasca. Still, it contextualizes the brew’s use with the broader conversation of how psychedelic substances play a role in spirituality and healing for many people.
The Reality of Truth delves into the experiences of people from all walks of life who have used psychedelic substances to reach personal insights and “transcend” the normal plane of reality. The interviews include a variety of spiritual leaders, celebrities, and everyday people who have turned to psychedelics as one among many “gateways to spirituality.”
Hosted by actress Michelle Rodriguez and writer/director Mike Zapolin, the documentary begins with Zapolin’s personal quest to find meaning for his life. During his search, he comes across many spiritual practices that focus on developing a deeper understanding of one’s mind, including the use of ayahuasca in shamanic rituals. The film follows Zapolin and a group of his friends as they travel in South America to try two psychedelic substances: San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca.
Their experiences (along with the perspectives of the spiritual gurus and celebrities they interview) provide a compelling combination of theoretical knowledge and first-hand experiences of ayahuasca. If you’re interested in seeing this documentary, it’s available via a subscription with Amazon Prime or Gaia.
Unlike The Reality of Truth, this 2009 documentary specifically centers on an organization that arranges retreats for ayahuasca participants in Peru. The organization, Blue Morpho Tours, is run by Hamilton Souther. Souther is a “gringo” who discovered shamanism during a similar spiritual journey, much like the quest that many of his clients are on.
The main focus of Metamorphosis is the experience of five ayahuasca drinkers who are signed up for a nine-day retreat through Blue Morpho. The documentary covers the expectations, hopes, and fears of the five participants about the ayahuasca ceremony, as well as the various mental and physical hardships that have led them to seek out answers that they hope ayahuasca offers.
Throughout the retreat, Souther and Maestro Don Alberto, a local shaman who leads the retreats for Blue Morpho, guide the participants through deeply emotional moments and explain the significance of each step. The emotionally-charged documentary provides a valuable look into how ancient and modern ayahuasca use can meet. It is available to watch for free on YouTube.
Drinking the Jungle
In a format similar to Metamorphosis, Drinking the Jungle is a relatively brief (52 min.) documentary that focuses on a retreat where spiritual seekers take part in ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru. Unlike the previous entry, the main theme of this documentary is how ayahuasca can offer incredible medical benefits, both for physical and mental health.
Aubrey Marcus, the producer and director of this film, has previous experience exploring the world of Peruvian ceremonial psychedelic use in another film, Huachuma, which focuses on the use of San Pedro cactus. As a result, he’s able to add his own perspective to the experiences of using ayahuasca, as he takes part in the ceremonies alongside the other subjects of the documentary.
The participants are interviewed before and after the ceremonies, which are led by Maestro Howard Lawler. The seekers then discuss how the experiences they have helped them deal with grief, self-worth, and other internal journeys. If you’re interested in seeing these perspectives of ayahuasca use, Aubrey Marcus provides the film available for free viewing on his website.
The Last Shaman
Also available on Netflix is The Last Shaman, a 2016 documentary that focuses on James Freeman’s journey to Peru to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony as a last resort attempt to avoid suicide.
At the point when the film begins, Freeman has already sought extensive treatment for his clinical depression, without success. He decides that he’ll only try for twelve more months before giving in to his suicidal ideation.
Like Léa & I , the documentary is a high-stakes, emotionally heavy presentation on ayahuasca’s capacity to offer personal healing. The film follows Freeman as he participates in ayahuasca ceremonies and communicates with a number of curanderos (shamans) in the Amazon. In the process, he uncovers answers that he couldn’t find with mainstream Western treatments.
This documentary has had a controversial reception but undoubtedly provides a unique perspective among the documentaries portraying Westerners seeking answers through ayahuasca use. Consider viewing this film if you’re interested in seeing Freeman’s lengthy exploration of ayahuasca ceremonies and shamanism.
Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics
The most recently released entry on this list, Have a Good Trip is a star-studded film from comedy writer Donick Cary, released in 2020 but filmed over a period of eleven years. A parade of celebrities line up to tell their psychedelic anecdotes, from the profound to the wildly outlandish.
Unlike many of the other films on the list, Have a Good Trip doesn’t go into much depth on the scientific or spiritual side of entheogens, but if you’re interested in a light-hearted exploration into the psychedelic lives of A-listers, then this is the film for you. Now available on Netflix.