Friday, October 26, 2007
Jan Kounen is a French music video and feature film director who has specialized in bringing the spiritual world to the screen. On locations in Peru and Mexico to film the psychedelic spaghetti western, Renegade (2004, released as Blueberry outside the U.S.), an adaptation of the French comic book by renowned visionary artist Moebius, he discovered Shamanism, fell in love with the indigenous Shipibo-Conibos culture and later spent several months learning the ways of their plant medicine, ayahuasca. He even filmed a documentary about it, Other Worlds, which will be re-released as a DVD box set in October.
His latest feature film, 99 Francs [pictured above], which he adapted from a bestselling French novel, was released overseas in September (currently there is no U.S. distribution behind the film). It's the story of a jaded advertising executive who becomes an overnight celebrity after rallying against consumer society. Kounen has also created a non-profit organization called Spirit of the Anaconda and filmed a series of one-hour television documentaries titled Another Reality. Here he talks about his work with the shamans of South America, the plant medicine ayahuasca, the difficulties of bringing the other world onto the screen — as well as the altered state of contemporary media itself.
Filmmaker: How did you start in the film industry and have you always been interested in spiritual themes?
Kounen: My first feature film was Dobermann – it’s an action-cops-gangster-Spaghetti Western. That came out in 1997. Previously I did a lot of short films and commercials, so there was no design to do the type of films I make now. If you had told me ten years ago that the last movie I’d have done [the documentary bio-pic, Umma] would be about Hindu saint, well...
Filmmaker: So how did you start making films about psychedelic states of mind?
Kounen: I was researching mystical experiences, which was the subject of Renegade, and found out about shamanism. I went to see the Huichol Indians in the Sierra in Mexico, like the ones in the Carlos Castanada books. I took ayahuasca [with them], and I had these experiences — I was deeply projected into these realms.... Suddenly it was not just research for the film, it became a complete personal change. And the film became a testimony to those experiences.
Filmmaker: How would you describe your film, Renegade? A hallucinogenic Western comic strip?
Kounen: The Blueberry comic was initially more [like] a straight Western. But Moebius is a very mystical artist. I told him I wanted to adapt Blueberry, but let’s meet the shaman who we didn’t get to meet in the comic book. In one of the comic books you do meet a shaman, but he’s [already] dead. When I was a kid I was like, wow, I want to see [Blueberry] meet him when he was alive...
Filmmaker: So were you interested in shamanism before you read Moebius?
Kounen: No I was not. I was just a filmmaker, I wanted to make, live and eat films! But at one point when you make your first movie there comes a purpose to what you tell, and that makes the movie. And as soon as you’re done you want to make another one. So you start to research the subject that you have left over. Why had I left this research? When I started the research, I had never really looked into religions. I had refused them. [When] I started to research shamanism, I decided it was a subject matter where the hero [of my film] will live an experience of a transcendental state. But it was an intellectual [idea]. So I had to go there, to live for myself the experience.
Filmmaker: And how long were you there that first time doing your shamanistic research? And what area of Peru was it?
Kounen: I was in Pucallpa, in 1999. Guillermo [the Shipibo shaman that stars in Renegade] at the time was living in Pucullpa.
Filmmaker: How were you introduced to Guillermo?
Kounen: By Alan Shoemaker [an Iquitos tour operator and sometimes
ayahuasquero]. He said if you want to have an experience, a strong experience with ayahuasca, you have to go with a native Indian, with the indigenous people. And this man is a pure traditional healer, but as well he knows the Occidental [Western] people, he knows the west and he deals with both worlds. This is how the adventure started.
Filmmaker: And so you went to stay with Guillermo in Pucullpa?
Kounen: Yeah... actually [the ayahuasca] was so strong that after three sessions with Guillermo I was like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I could not communicate what had happened to me — all my reality was shattered. You know, you’re 35 years old and you build up an idea of the nature of reality through the information you have accepted from your culture. And suddenly you have an experience that you can’t deny that makes a big break through all your beliefs. You are lost in a realm where suddenly you have to consider what is the nature of reality? I had a very hard time, actually. It was beautiful what I learned, it was a gift, but it was really hard, especially socially. I went back and had more ceremonies for two or three years. And then I started to make Other Worlds. I started to meet scientists who have a different view and who are still scientists — they are still people from our culture. And so I started to make bridges.
Filmmaker: Do you think your role as an artist is to bring back these visions?
Kounen: Yeah. My role was to make bridges, to help communicate this knowledge. Of course this is the first thing you have. I have been completely, deeply... let us say impassioned by technical gear and the cinema, CGI and 3D and all that. That was my work when I was doing features and commercials. But then I had the [ayahuasca] experience and I said, okay, now I have to bring back what I have witnessed. This had previously only been brought back to reality through the art and craft of the Shipibo-Conibos tribe. This was my main goal and I think that the visions in Blueberry made me very relieved when I made them. It was almost an obsession.
Filmmaker: And what was the reaction then to Blueberry? You said that it didn’t succeed at the box office.
Kounen: I think time will tell. If people know what the film is about and take it for what it is, I think they will like it. If they expect a straight adaptation from a comic book, they will be disappointed. This was a problem with the [marketing] of the film. It was presented as an action-Western. It’s a marketing problem, but I think in the future this marketing problem will go, and people will start to know about the film and buy and look into it for its vision.
Filmmaker: You’ve done a few documentaries now about spirit issues. Will you ever go back into the mainstream, Hollywood genre? And, if so, can there still be spirit coming through your work?
Kounen: The important thing I learned from those experiences is that it’s vital I make films about spiritual reality and ayahuasca first. But there is also the way or the knowledge — discovering that there is a tremendous knowledge that we cannot imagine in our culture. You have to make the bridge to make people consider. Just consider. The culture protects itself from these concepts. It’s like a philosophical issue but its also like a form, a keeper that doesn’t want you to go out of your own culture. And that’s in any culture.
Filmmaker: So you have to introduce a virus into the matrix to get the idea across?
Kounen: The Matrix is a very... ayahuasca movie! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Totally. I like what you said before about models of reality, and how film itself can change perception. Could you expand on that?
Kounen: Cinema is a great tool to deal with a modified state of consciousness and different perceptions. Shamanism, or meditation, or other ways, help us to understand how the creatures that we are work. Through perception we have information feeding into us, but it’s limited information. If you start to think of it as separate channels, then you start to know how to work the channels relative to the information. If you start to shatter the channels — which is what doing ayahuasca does, in a way - then you get information, really, on how you work. It’s going to the deep meaning of what it is to be a human being. It’s our culture projected onto the matter, manipulating the matter. How do we work as a creature? If you go to the indigenous Shipibo language they have no words for future or past, just now. Because it’s dangerous to project the psychology of now onto the future. And the past is always a story that you told, or you have been told. But it’s not true.
In a way all these questions are magnified with cinema. Cinema is [similar to shamanism] in the way that you can separate a channel. Cinema is always doing this. You go slow motion, you manipulate the sound, and you have a completely different perception. You go in on a close-up on an eye and you have a different perception of the scene. So, you know, it’s by the use of the grammar itself that you make the emotion in any film.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about the challenge of getting the special effects in Renegade and Other Worlds to replicate the visionary experience?
Kounen: It was a long process. It was like a shoot itself. We had 40 operators on a lot of machines. It was a very long process, over a year, and that’s the reason it cost a lot. The question is not just can you create a visionary world that you like, but can you relive on film the experience that you had which is connected to a culture that you respect?
Filmmaker: How much do you think that the Western audience that’s seeing your vision can integrate the spiritual experience and not just get another Technicolor overload-download? Can you capture the essence?
Kounen: I don’t know. The only way to know is to have feedback. And I’ve had a lot of feedback on Renegade. Some people said, “What are these images that aren’t explained in the movie — I’m really pissed off!”
Filmmaker: Well they must have been challenged on some level.
Kounen: Sure. I was surprised, because, well you can like or dislike a movie but you shouldn’t hold a grudge. It’s not positive. The other reaction, though, was that it took people to some very strange realms. For example, people have said they have seen the film like, 30 times, and the first ten times they were almost throwing up after it, but they were [ayahuasqueros], people who know. I’ve really never had so much mystical feedback from a movie than with Renegade. I should admit that the design of the final scenes is like an ayahuasca session, in the way they use the sound, incorporating Tibetan bowls and with the frequencies the Shipibo work on. There’s the icaros of the curandero, the shaman, and those songs are from the ayahuasca ceremony, so it’s really strong and in the realm. And with the visuals you have archetypal forms, a universal language, so you are receiving it in this pure form, light and demons, a common language. But really, the finale of Renegade isn’t meant to be complex, it’s meant to be perceived. You don’t have to know anything about shamanism. You have to be able to let the mind go and just receive it.
The thing I discovered is it’s very difficult because people are educated now by television, where you have a break to go have a pee and five minutes after come back to the movie. The [ayahuasca journey in Renegade] is suddenly an experience where you are facing a vertigo, because you don’t have an explanation. As a creature you have to let the mind go. Normally you stick to your mind because that is the traditional use of cinema, and you explain everything. In a way it is a kind of experience that is simple. It is simple to “get” the film, you just have to perceive it. Don’t ask questions, don’t ask yourself why this, why this color? No, [you should just] receive [Renegade] like a concert, like music. But the problem is we understand this way of being from music, but we don’t understand it from cinema, because you have been educated to have meanings always with the pictures. But [Renegade] is designed to be received as pure perception, visually and aurally.
Filmmaker: Do you think if you follow the right cultural cues to connect with the American audience that Hollywood can embrace a version of spirituality by doing movies like The Matrix and Renegade? Is it now allowing movies like this to exist, where a generation ago we couldn’t even comprehend enough to put these ideas onto film?
Kounen: I think that you had that before, even on a higher level. If you go back to the 70s there were psychedelic movies. 2001 would be the ultimate one. I’m happy to discover movies like The Matrix. The Matrix was a multi-layered film designed for and about psychedelics. It’s almost like a shamanic experience in the way it revealed the levels of reality. So yes it’s good to have them, but I think The Matrix was designed to exist on all levels. My film, unfortunately, was designed only to rise to the “other world” level. As a filmmaker that’s the lesson I found — you have to be in balance...
Filmmaker: Feet on the ground, head in the stars...
Kounen: Maybe I was too much like an artist. I fought to have the maximum money to make the film I wanted. I didn’t think that I should, for example, make it smaller and experimental. But if you work on a bigger level you have to put in all the layers.
Filmmaker: In your documentary Other Worlds you said that the artist, or the person who goes out to these experiences, can become a madman.... You also said you’ve done ayahuasca over 100 times, and that once you broke the diet and you had an incidence of schizophrenia. Could you talk about that?
Kounen: If you go too far you can't communicate. You leave reality. Now everyone lives a different reality, everyone. But there is a dimension we share, a common ground, and if you lose it and go too far, you can't connect. I think maybe in some lunatic asylum you have a person who knows about reality, who has seen something, but the problem is that the psychological mind cannot handle it. And then what happens is you’re alone. My cure, in a way, was doing Other Worlds because then I started to communicate back. If you transform what you live into a book, art, a dance, a song... then you communicate and it’s okay.
Filmmaker: Do you think in a way the Western world, our culture is
mad, and as more and more Westerners drink ayahuasca they become aware of a larger reality, and not mad? Do you think everyone should drink ayahuasca?
Kounen: No. I view ayahuasca as a traditional indigenous medicine. You drink it because you have a problem. If you have a problem because you don’t like your work or your culture, that could be a reason to drink, as well as having a psychological problem, or a physical problem. It’s just like going to the doctor for psychoanalysis. But I think your question goes too far. For some people ayahuasca will be good for them, for others maybe not. It’s just a journey, whether it’s ayahuasca, meditation or living in nature. Just going to another culture and looking into it deeply – suddenly you will have a feedback to your own culture. Suddenly you have a mirror. If you always see from your own culture, then you can’t have another POV. And of course ayahuasca is a really strong tool for that, but I think it depends on the person. Ayahuasca will be good for some people if it is always taken with a healer who knows, an indigenous healer, because this can be a strong experience. For others, there will be something else. It’s like the idea and notion of initiation. We are lost. In our culture only the women are initiated because they give birth.
Filmmaker: And we have few elders to teach us.
Kounen: And maybe this is something we have to reinvent because it doesn’t exist in our culture — to transcend, to become adults. Like the Indians — they put the kids in a hole with a cobra one night. Not [in Peru], but in other tribes. And before the shaman they teach the kids not to have fear, not to move, and there are very few accidents. Sometimes the kid is bitten and they die. But very, very, very rarely. Less often than with a motorbike accident in our culture. The culture has invented a setup where you have to look to death. When you go out of this place [the cobra pit] you are an adult. You have transcended. I think it’s more important to find a more secure way of initiation. Like the Vipassana meditation, ten days in silence – it’s a start. So is ayahuasca, or something else. We need that initiation because our culture is lost. Without it we just become greedy kids and forget about what life really is.
Filmmaker: Well, you’ve taken ayahuasca over 100 times. Do you consider yourself initiated? Have you gone over that bridge?
Kounen: I consider myself an ayahuasquero, just a user of ayahuasca. Not a curandero. But over time and with the number of ceremonies I have done, I know I have been driven by the Shipibo healers on a journey that I wouldn’t have been able to go on alone. I had the chance to be able to go with them, which was sometimes terrifying and sometimes beautiful. And in the end what I found was not a metaphysical question. I was more relaxed, and I don’t even think of all the old things. I’m more into life. The main thing is to have good relations with your friends, your family. As soon as that’s shattered that means that you’re not in a good state. So I think ayahuasca is part of my life and it’s important. Maybe I won’t make another film about it, though.
Filmmaker: Do you still drink then, when you’re not in South America?
Kounen: I go often to South America, so I drink there. But not that much. Maybe in a year I drink one or two times a month, but that’s compressed into a [shorter] time period.
Filmmaker: We were speaking before about having the mirrors in a cultural context to understand your own culture. What did the indigenous communities that you stayed in and filmed with think of you being a filmmaker? It’s almost like magic, this technology you brought to their world.
Kounen: I think that at first there were, well, even the healers were not sure of me, you know. But after a while I built up their confidence. I was going to the ayahuasca sessions, and at more and more sessions they saw I was getting what they showed me. If you’re getting what they show you then you transform your action, which was to make films. And they saw the films and the pictures and they saw the dedication, that I was part of their reality and I was sharing something with them. So it takes time, I think. It took seven years [to film Renegade]. I will have a completely different view of ayahuasca, I think, in ten years. But it took time over two years to have good interactions with [the Shipibo]. Before that they didn’t say anything. And I myself, there was a period when I was into the ayahuasca sessions and I wasn’t in very good shape. So they feel where you are, and what you are thinking. It’s like you make a film with them – but you’re the patient as well.
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Monday, October 15, 2007
From commercial crab fishing in Alaska, to learning how to become a filmmaker in Peru, Aaron Woolf’s worldly experience makes him an ideal documentarian for PBS. His previous films — Dying to Leave: The Human Face of Global Trafficking, Greener Grass Cuba and Baseball and the United States — all aired on public television, but Woolf is proud to have his latest film, King Corn, get theatrical distribution.
“I never wanted to be anything,” Woolf says. “I only knew things I wanted to accomplish in my life. I wanted to build a house, drive cross-country, run for office, shoot a documentary and have a family.” He’s an interesting individual who’s managed to do things his own way and each of his films reflects an incredible global consciousness.
King Corn is lighter subject matter than most documentaries released this year. It’s about the American farming community and the rapid metamorphosis it’s undergone over the last half century. The American industrial food industry, which is reliant on corn production, has expanded immensely and so have American waistlines. Consumption of inorganic food is at its highest rate ever, as are obesity levels; King Corn examines all these developments.
The film has been gaining momentum on the festival circuit and has been featured at the SXSW, True/False, Hot Docs, Boston and Wisconsin film festivals. This week it kicks off a fifteen-city tour (through Balcony Releasing) that began last Friday at New York’s cinema village.
KING CORN DIRECTOR AARON WOOLF. PHOTO BY WOOLF. ABOVE PHOTO: CURTIS ELLIS AND IAN CHENEY IN KING CORN. BY SAM CULLMAN
Filmmaker: Can you explain a little about your filmmaking background?
Woolf: It was strange; in college I studied art and politics. I always knew I wanted to make documentaries because I had this idea that I wanted to film stories which were happening. Most of my friends who were into film moved to LA and NY, but I had this notion of wanting to make films in Latin America. It was ridiculous I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. First though, I moved to Alaska and began working as a commercial crab fisherman, a highly successful industry at that time. But one day I just got in my car and started driving south. I drove all the way from Alaska to Peru, asking for film-production work along the way. Peru in the late eighties was going through complete turmoil, there was this revolutionary group called the Shining Path that kept blowing up power towers so there were incessant blackouts, a curfew and many foreigners were fleeing the country. There was this law that before they could screen a foreign film, they had to show a Peruvian short, so there was a very active filmmaking community. I wound up on the doorstep of a company called Inca Films and wound up staying with them for two years, making dozens of shorts. It was the greatest film school in the world.
Filmmaker: How did King Corn originate?
Woolf: I made this film with my cousin Curtis Ellis and his friend Ian Cheney. I had made a bunch of films by this point and Ellis had been studying agriculture at Yale. I wanted to make a documentary about the way Americans eat, because throughout my travels, I noticed all these paradoxes. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet maintains one of the worst diets. Also, for the first time in history, obesity is associated with poverty, as opposed to wealth. Through his studies, Ellis had been noticing these agricultural connections between modern farming practices and the way Americans ate. We started talking about making a documentary, but finding financing for a film about agriculture was difficult. My last film was about human trafficking, which had producers whipping out their checkbooks, for this I was lucky if I could get the pitch off without someone laughing.
Filmmaker: What made you pick the town of Greene, Iowa?
Woolf: After graduating Ellis and Cheney really wanted to drive across the country. I gave them a couple grand and a camera to document their journey. They also documented everything they ate. When they reached Iowa they had gotten sick of spending so much time together and got into a fight. Cheney got out of the truck demanding to be dropped off with his family in Greene, it was then that Ellis revealed he also had family in the same town. For a town with a population of around 1,000 that was a pretty big coincidence. They called me from Greene and told me what they had done so far and that they both had family in this small, farming community and the film began to take off from there.
Filmmaker: In a year full of dark documentaries such as Lake of Fire, Ghosts of Cité Soleil and Manda Bala, how do you think audiences will react to this film?
Woolf: Most of the films I’ve made have been on more “sensationalist” subject matter, that’s why it was so hard to get this financed. Also, it’s a false premise; we went to Greene with a plan. It’s not like Manda Bala or Ghosts of Cite Soleil which juxtaposes characters within a particular situation. In this case, we brought the characters and their plan to grow an acre of corn. We didn’t know what would happen from there, we didn’t know how accepting the town would be. Even though we knew a little before hand, we had no idea how much the American industrial food industry depends on corn. We also didn’t know how much it would change Cheney and Ellis. When you dedicate more than a year of your life to something, the experience can’t help but change you. They experienced the town burning down the grain elevator because there was too much corn. They experienced the town’s high school close because of the dwindling population. They experienced the farmer they were working with lose his farm. All of these experiences really became the argument in the film.
Filmmaker: What do you hope people will get out of seeing this film?
Woolf: I hope people will think a little more about what they eat and realize that we don’t have to accept the industrial food system as is. I want people to see through that invisible wall between what we eat and where it originates. We started this film with the idea that if we went to the root of the industrial system, we’d be able to see all the way up. But the American food industry, much like the global economy, is built with opacity; it’s hard to determine the origins of our consumer products. It turns out the farmers who grow this corn have little idea where it goes, just as people have little idea where their dinner actually comes from. Nobody wants a lecture and one of the things I wanted to do with this film is not create a polemic. I want the audience to go on this journey together and discover. I like the challenge of trying to bring balance to an issue like this through film.
Filmmaker: You used a lot of stop-motion animation in the film, whose idea was that?
Woolf: Ian should take most of the credit for that. We actually purchased the Fisher-Price farm set at the auction at the end of the film. But it was also a homage to this other corn-related film Hybrid. It’s a fascinating look at the industry and I hope King Corn can live up to it in the great pantheon of corn films. I also wanted to use the Fisher Price toys because that’s what kids in the cities and suburbs play with and thus, have this idealistic notion of what farms are like.
Filmmaker: Can you elaborate a little on the Farm Bill?
Woolf: Every five years this piece of legislation comes up before congress and ever since the 1970’s there’s been this increase in subsidizing corn. There’s been no effort to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches, but plenty of effort goes into making sure corn-syrup and corn-starch get into the American diet.
Filmmaker: In your opinion, what would be the optimal way to legislate farming in this country?
Woolf: I think we need to think more locally, but in a modernist way. I’m not talking about returning to the 19th century, but planning for agriculture in the post-petroleum age. The average bite of food travels fifteen-hundred miles from farm to plate. That means whatever you’re eating in America right now, you’re chasing down with a big glass of diesel. It takes insane amounts fossil fuel to farm and deliver food right now and it’s completely unnecessary. I think locally grown food is better food, I mean can you have fresh produce during the mid-western winters? No of course not, but I think we really should get back to using some of the older methods.
Filmmaker: Do you think ideas like that would work in an economy that’s so profit oriented?
Woolf: I think the capitalist system has room to be flexible and responds very well to consumer demand. I mean we just got rid of smoking in bars in New York City [and other large cities]. What we want least is this two food system, where people in affluent societies or University towns can go to farmer’s markets and purchase locally grown, organic food while the rest of America is eating McDonald’s. We need a government policy that democratizes the right for everyone to have fresh, organic food. Is it going to cost a little more? Sure, but aren’t we paying more in terms of our health? We’re actually paying more in our taxes to subsidize this industrial empire. We can vote with our dollars by choosing not to purchase food from supermarkets. We can also tell our congressman not to throw away their votes on the farm bill. The bill has the potential to incentivize fresh produce as much as it has the ability to incentivize fast-food, which it’s doing now.
Filmmaker: Do other countries eat that much differently from the United States?
Woolf: Americans are good at doing things well and doing things big. The industrial food system is a good representation of that. It’s done very well economically and Americans have become quite big. It stands in stark contrast to other developed countries, which have much lower levels of obesity. Of course now America is exporting its industry to other countries, which is supported by mass corn production. China in the past ten years has built thirty new mills dedicated to producing high-fructose corn syrup. You look at all the immigration into this country, even from third world countries, and they’re very susceptible to weight gain and diabetes.
Filmmaker: What documentaries inspire you?
Woolf: There’s so many. I really like the idea of the fiction/documentary hybrid. I could count among my favorite films Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, it’s so ripe and spontaneous. Also Memories of Underdevelopment, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s beautiful 1968 film which mixes documentary segments with fictional characters. I also really love Brother’s Keeper and Grey Gardens. I think they’re solid films that transcend their subject matter.
Filmmaker: You’ve exclusively made documentaries, do you have any desire to direct narratives?
Woolf: I have a problem with the use of the word “narrative.” Every documentary has to have a narrative to work. More or less King Corn set up a narrative by having Ian and Mike go to this town. I think one of the best festivals right now is True/False because it’s dedicated to questioning the category of documentary filmmaking. I think storytelling is storytelling and each film develops its own language where some rules apply and others don’t. I guess we should really say “scripted” or “unscripted.” Although to some degree even documentaries are scripted when you’re choosing what to shoot and what to omit. A documentary is still directing the audience’s attention.
Filmmaker: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Woolf: I’m working on two projects. One is the story of an American linguist who went down to the Amazon in the 1970s, it’s a film about how language determines the way we think (or the other way around). We’re shooting deep in the Amazon and I see it being along the lines of Grizzly Man. I’m also working on a documentary about the five Latina actresses that dub Desperate Housewives into Spanish, it really parallels the actors and the characters the play.
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