Healings in the Amazon

Interview with Nick Polizzi, director of The Sacred Science
Author: Jair Robles

If you were confronted with what mainstream science qualifies as an incurable illness, would you be willing to leave everything behind and venture into the Amazonian Jungle in search of a “magical cure” from the hands of local healers? In addition, would you allow a film crew to document your experiences and tribulations along the way?

Part of the official selection of works/contributions at different film festivals throughout the world, The Sacred Science is a documentary that follows eight people with varying physical and psychological ailments — from different forms of Cancer to depression and alcoholism — as they embark on a healing journey, for thirty days, into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. A handful of local Shamanic healers work on them using a combination of plant medicine and intense spiritual exercises.

SuperConsciousness conversed with filmmaker and producer Nick Polizzi about his most recent work, the process and challenges he faced in making the documentary, The Sacred Science, and his motivations to document alternative healing therapies. Nick has spent the past four years directing and editing feature-length documentaries about holistic alternatives to conventional medicine. Most recently, Nick directed The Tapping Solution and co-edited Simply Raw — Raw for 30 Days.

SuperConsciousness: What is your background as a filmmaker and what got you interested in making The Sacred Science?

Nick Polizzi: Most of the films that I’ve made are in the alternative healing genre. The first film I made was The Tapping Solution, which is about EFT. It’s an energy healing technique. The second film I was involved in is Raw. It’s about 6 diabetics that go on an all-raw food diet for 30 days, and 5 out of 6 of them reversed their diabetes. Those are the first 2 films I was involved in.

A lot of the contemporary, alternative healing methods seem to have their roots in much more ancient lineages of healing, and when I started doing a lot of research, I was curious to see where these things all originated, nutrition and, also, energy healing. And it startled me to find out that most of these systems have their roots in shamanic cultures, indigenous cultures around the world.

When a friend of mine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, and he’d seen both of the other movies, it seemed like he understood that there was potential for him with alternative medicine. But I think those other two films were very niched. I wanted to create a more mainstream film that would draw people into these teachings who didn’t necessarily have experience with holistic medicine. When I started researching shamanism, one of the hot beds of shamanism in the world is the Amazon rainforest, in certain areas of the Amazon rainforest, and we decided to shoot the film there, bringing patients there to create more of an adventure type film, where people had to really go on a journey to find the healing.

SC: One of the main healers in your film is Roman. Can you tell us how you met Roman and about his personal story how he became a healer?

NP: There has been a ton of synchronicity around this project. When we decided to make the film about shamanism, within a month period, three of my friends — none of them know each other — but three of them all pointed to the same person for me to talk to and that person was Roman.

Roman is a very interesting person. He has lived in the jungle for over a decade. He went down there with a very severe health condition called Crohn's disease, which in some cases can be a terminal illness. It can be something that you have for life and that ultimately may kill you. He had been suffering from Crohn's disease for the majority of his childhood and into his adolescence and, when he was twenty years old, the doctor said that there was nothing else they could do for him with conventional medicine and they were going to have to start removing large portions of his intestine. The way he likes to say it, is that he went down to the Amazon for a second opinion. And when he did, was directed towards a particular medicine man in the jungle who took him under his wing, brought him out deep into the rainforest and taught him about the plants, and within eight months, Roman was healed of his Crohn's disease and he has never experienced any symptoms since then. It’s been ten years plus.

Once he had healed himself, the medicine men in the jungle look at that as the first step towards becoming a shaman yourself. The first task, a lot of times, is for you to come into the situation with a very severe illness, and then make a miraculous recovery. So when he did that, he had not only healed himself, but had taken the first step towards becoming a medicine man himself. And so he spent the next 5 to 7 years in the jungle, practicing this medicine, and then probably 8 or 9 years after he had healed himself is when he and I got in touch. That was how this whole adventure began.

SC: What was the process in selecting the 8 people that went down to the Amazon with you? What were the criteria that you used to select these 8 people?

NP: It was a very hard process. For someone to want to take their lives into their own hands and travel deep into an area of wilderness that has a bunch of its own dangers and perils itself — for somebody to make that decision — they have to be pretty desperate, and open to just about anything. A lot of the patients that came or that applied were very desperate and were at their wit’s end with western medicine, had tried just about everything, and were willing to do just about anything to heal. Whittling that four-hundred-person list down to eight people was kind of heartbreaking, because you didn’t want to say no to anybody.

The way we did it was by asking everybody, once they had applied, how they felt about snakes and the idea that there were going to be a lot of snakes around, because there just are, there’s all kinds of snakes in the jungle. They’re a way of life, and if you’re not a snake person, you really shouldn’t come down. That eliminated probably one third of the list right there. All of a sudden the four hundred was probably down to like two hundred and seventy-five or two hundred and fifty. Then we asked people how they felt about living in seclusion in the middle of nowhere, with no running water and no electricity for thirty plus days. And that probably eliminated another thirty percent of the list, so then we were down to maybe one hundred and fifty or so. After that, just a few more emails, talking about the dangers that were around and the plant medicines they were going to need to take and whether or not they were open to taking what we would call here in the United States hallucinogenic plants or entheogenic plants. That also eliminated a lot from the list.

By the time we were done asking the preliminary round of questions, we probably had only fifty left. Out of those fifty, I called them all personally and did about a half an hour to an hour interview with each of them, to see what kind of people they were, what kind of personality they had and what would be the right fit.

SC: Can you give a brief description of the eight people, who they were and what kind of disease each one of them had?

NP: We had three cancer patients. There was Melinda, who had breast cancer; John Wood, who had prostate cancer; Garry Thompson, who had neuroendocrine cancer. There was Nicola, who had Parkinson’s disease; Joel who suffered from type 2 diabetes; Jessica who suffered from Crohn's disease, much like Roman used to. There was Gretchen, who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS; and there was Juan, who suffered from manic depression and drug addiction.

SC: Now, from a purely medical standpoint, what were some of the verifiable results that were produced on some of the people that participated in this experience for the film?

NP: I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that there were some definite results with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and with depression.

SC: You took them down to the Amazon rainforest, to a healing center that’s already established, that’s my understanding from watching the film and listening to some of the interviews that are posted on your site. Can you tell us about this center, who founded it and what is its purpose?

NP: The center is called The Paititi Institute and it was created by Roman Hanis, and also a woman named Cynthia Robinson, who played a big role in helping us put the film together. The purpose of The Paititi Institute, doubles as both a healing center, where different medicine men from local villages and also from villages far away can come and do a residency and share their healing techniques and their lineage with the center and also with each other, to help preserve it. It also functions as a permaculture center. That’s where Cynthia Robinson comes in, she is bringing some of the world-class permaculture experts and teachers down to the center, to use these time-tested techniques to start rejuvenating parts of the jungle that have been destroyed by the oil companies and also by loggers.

We talk a lot about stopping the destruction of the rainforest and Cynthia Robinson is one step ahead of most people. She’s not thinking about stopping the destruction; she’s thinking of how do we rebuild the areas that have already been destroyed?

So they’re doing two things: They’re preserving Amazonian shamanic traditions, and they are putting in place some revolutionary techniques to regrow the rainforest.

SC: What were some of the most significant changes in your personal perception from what you thought the film would be, before you did it, and after the month and a half that you were down there with the patients?

NP: There were a few things that I think impacted me heavily. On a very practical level, when we were putting together the project, I was thinking that we would be working with medicine men that were wearing headdresses and loincloths, and bone earrings, that we would be in the middle of a village setting where everyone was half naked. When you get down there, this isn’t just my opinion, you can talk to pretty much any ethno botanist who works in the jungle and they’ll tell you the same thing. This area has been relatively modernized and it isn’t to say that the medicine isn’t just as powerful or that the traditions aren’t just as alive as they’ve been in the past, but the medicine men that you work with, they look like everyday people.

A lot of the time, people who look more like the traditional medicine man are people who are dressing up because they are trying to sell you their services and they’re not truly a medicine man; they’re just trying to make a quick buck. Most of the time, in these regions, whether you’re in Brazil, Peru or Bolivia, the people that are the true medicine men, a lot of times have a day job. They don’t hang a shingle outside their hut saying, “Medicine Man.” A lot of them double as an electrician, a plumber, baker, or somebody who farms for a living but, at the same time, everyone says, “See him out there, with the overalls on? He’s the one that you need to go see.” And he’ll deny that he can do anything for you until he knows that he can trust you and then he’ll work with you.

There’s a really interesting screening process that you need to be aware of when you’re going to see a medicine man. I think a lot of people go down to the Peruvian Amazon as Eco tourists, and they jump at the first person who looks remotely like what they would perceive to be a shaman, and it’s a dangerous thing to do because they could take advantage of you. Women have been abused and violated in terrible ways and all kinds of terrible things can happen. It’s not something that you can really do by yourself. You need to have connections, establish inroads, and be very careful but, if you take the time to do it and really establish trust within the community, you can find some of the most powerful people you will ever see, doing things that you didn’t know were possible. It’ll make you believe that magic actually exists.

SC: Based on what you just answered, it’s one thing to meet them and have them heal you, but for them to be open to actually participate in a film, how hard was that process?

NP: There were a lot of medicine men that we really wanted to have in the film that just wouldn’t allow us to film them. They look at the camera as being an element in itself. We look at a camera, or at least some of us do — I personally can’t stand having my picture taken, which is kind of funny for a documentary filmmaker — but we look at the camera as being a benign addition to a social situation, that doesn’t affect the social situation and is just a device that is taking a picture. Well, down there, they look at the cameraman, pointing the camera at the patient who’s being healed, as a third party that is very intrusive in the healing process.

Habin, in the film, the shaman who showed up on his motorcycle in the middle of the movie, he almost wouldn’t be filmed. We even show him being a little bit resistant in the beginning. Because there was a big debate about it, he and I were sitting in a Coca ceremony, while he was here, and he just explained to me: “Nick, it’s not as easy as you think it is. There’s a lot more going on than the shaking of a rattle and the blowing of some smoke. There are a lot of things here that can be offended or can be skewed; the energies can be skewed when there’s a third party, especially a third party that’s capturing the event on film. There are things that happen with that, and you need to be very aware and be very respectful of that.” So there are certain things that Habin did that were pretty miraculous, that we couldn’t even be there to film, because he asked us not to.

How did we bypass the three or four-year research period for this, the three or four years “getting to know you” period, that you would normally have to have to be able to find the true shamans? I would say that’s where Roman came into play. We were very lucky. Roman found us. He and I sat in ceremonies. He gave me some very strong medicine early on, and he saw how I reacted to having my whole reality shattered in front of me and saw that what was left, I guess, was trustworthy enough for him to move forward with us and share his connections. He was basically our scout down there. Everyone trusts him, people know him, and shamans come to him when they have a problem with their patient sometimes because they trust him and they know he’s connected to the plant medicine. When Roman said that they could trust us, they believed him. So it made it a lot easier for us to establish trust very quickly.

SC: Have you followed up, after the film, with the patients that went down with you?

NP: We have followed up with most of them. We are going to be posting video and some audio interviews with them soon. We’re hesitant to go into their current status, because we want people to tune into the website and keep on checking back with us because we are going to keep on monitoring their progress.

SC: The film was released last year, is that correct, and it was shown in certain film festivals? What is the next step to bringing it out to a broader audience?

NP: The film was released in film festivals and it’s going to be in a few more. It’s in the Tel Aviv Spirit Festival next month. It’s also in the Istanbul Documentary Film Festival in Turkey, and it’s continuing to be invited to more. It just screened last week at the Sydney Latin American Film Festival in Australia. So it’s been in a lot of theatres, toured a lot of the film festivals, but this month is going to be coming out on DVD and iTunes. You can buy the DVD off of our website right now, we have a presale special, it’s being sold for half off, and then once we do the official launch, it’ll go back up to a normal price.

SC: Are you already thinking about a next film project? Or is this going to be something that you will be still working on for some more time?

NP: We are very excited about some future projects we have in the works, and just through the making of this film, we’ve been connected with shamanic communities around the world, and I personally don’t see myself making more films unless they have something to do with indigenous healing tradition at their very center. We have a few films in the wheelhouse right now that we are putting together and are going to be taking a different angle, going to a different remote region at the end of the world to explore and journey into another ancient healing tradition that is rooted in shamanism. One of them, we very well might be going to Siberia in the next few years, too, trekking deep into the Siberian steppes to focus on some of the more remote and under-explored regions and cultures of the world. We also have a lot of friends here in the United States that are the leaders and spiritual elders of different Native American tribes and it seems like there is a film being generated right now. We are not sure what it’s going to be. We are teaming up with a few other filmmakers your audience probably would know and we are starting to script out a few ideas for a documentary film that explores the amazing healing traditions that are right under our nose here in the United States, and by that I mean the Native American tribes that we’ve all but forgotten about, that are struggling right now, but are still very much alive.

SC: Is there something else that you would like to tell our readers?

NP: I was doing another interview today for the radio, and they asked me what I would like people to take away. I think the two things that I would like for people to take away from the film and from the project as a whole are these: One, that there’s a lot more to medicine than I think we understand here in the United States, and watching our film is just the tip of the iceberg. There are indigenous groups around the world that have been practicing very powerful medicine for thousands and thousands of years that we’ve forgotten about, and that we need to tune back into for a bunch of reasons. The second thing is that I think we need to reevaluate our approach to preserving the Amazon rainforest. Right now I think it’s more of a guilt-ridden thing, where we feel bad about it, we don’t want to cut it down. We need to start looking at it more in different terms. We should want to preserve this place, because there’s 80,000 species of plants that grow there, three percent of them or less have been studied by modern medicine. By far, it has the highest potential to provide cures to many of the most serious ailments that plague our society right now. By cutting down the Amazon rainforest, we are pretty much destroying potential cures to the cancers, the Alzheimer’s, the MS — you name it — that we’re suffering from right now. Instead of us looking at it as a moral dilemma, we should be looking at it selfishly, and saying to ourselves, “We can’t afford to cut this place down.”

What other kinds of shamanic healings do you know of that could be or should be documented on film? - Tell us below!