Sick Birds Die Easy is a deceptive film -- part fiction, part documentary, and all madness. It started with a script, but fell into a kind of personal essay. Somewhere off camera, the director is laughing.
The film follows a group of drug-addled Midwesterners into the Heart of Darkness as they attempt to purge themselves of the fear and loathing that anchors their own sick hearts. Their quest is centered on iboga, a psychedelic plant that's part of the religious ceremonies of the indigenous tribes of Gabon. It's been shown to cure heroin addiction, and underground treatment centers using it have appeared in certain parts of the States.
We caught up last week with filmmaker Nik Fackler and actor/comedian Ross Brockley, both of whom will be in town Wednesday for the Trylon premiere and afterparty at Icehouse. We were joined by Minneapolis-based journalist Steve Marsh, who had tagged along for part of the film's production.
Below is a shortened version of our conversation on drug tourism, cultural exploitation, and each man's unique peek through the doors of perception.
You guys seemed to be conscious going into this film of the irony involved, that a bunch of privileged white guys were escaping into the jungle.
Fackler: I wanted that for the film. There was sort of a script we were going off of when we got there. I wanted this group of people who represented Western culture. I wanted that to be a part of the adventure you're watching, this hallucinogenic tourism. Then it all goes wrong. The film at the beginning was supposed to be this experimental narrative, kind of like a hybrid Blair Witch thing. But once we got there, it all started falling apart really quickly.
Marsh: There were so many challenges right away. You had to negotiate all the time with the white African guys. They wanted more money. What once was possible was no longer possible. The first day was all laughter, and then two, three days in it looked like Nik was having a real hard time. The morale was kind of poisonous. People were talking shit behind each others' backs.
Brockley: And, Steve, don't forget this part -- we're at a black-magic camp. But really, Nik found the whole story in the editing.
Fackler: When we got back to the states, we had half the footage from the original narrative, and half the footage from a potentially cool documentary, and this behind-the-scenes footage of the film being made. We came back with over 500 hours of footage from these three movies, and then just spent a year and a half editing, turning what I had into something completely different than I originally intended.
Marsh: Yeah, kind of like turning horse shit into lemonade, man. I'm amazed at the job Nik did because I thought they were fucked.
Tell us about your experiments with the plant. Ross, you had a pretty miserable experience.
Brockley: I don't think he gave me the right stuff. Tatyo [a French-anarchist shaman in charge of the ceremony] and I were sort of at odds. We never really got on very well, and when the time came for the ceremony, he was completely out of his mind on Iboga and whatever else.
Marsh: You're supposed to crossover to this spiritual plane, sort of this valley of the dead, and they kept me up all night. I did like 25, 30 spoonfuls, and enemas. They would juice you up the ass with the [iboga] bark. I had visions of my family. I had visions of the woman I was dating. Maybe she was cheating on me or something. I had these bad feelings about people that were close to me, and then I was comatose for like 30 hours. I was in my bunk in this fugue state for like a day.
[page] Brockley: I puked from four in the morning 'til like five the next day. I thought I was gonna die there for a second. I knew [Tatyo] didn't try to kill me, but he was a witch. That's for sure.
Fackler: To me, it felt like that early onset of mushrooms.
Marsh: Right. Where you feel kind of prickly and spongy.
Fackler: Yeah. I had this hallucination of an angel, but with a glowing third eye, and it came into my room with big angel wings. It played drums. It was different than any other hallucination I'd ever experienced, where if you get up real close, they can kind of fade in and out. This thing was like block solid. I just stayed up and stared and rubbed my eyes.
The next day, I woke up puking, and I almost choked to death on the puke. I would throw up, and couldn't keep my breath in. I was freaked out. I mean, it's some hard stuff. It's basically like sawdust.
Marsh: All psychedelics taste terrible. They all have this suffering stage before you get clairvoyance, before you get some kind of take off. But I didn't really take off on iboga. I was kind of disappointed.
Any take away besides vomiting?
Brockley: We were straight in a hornet's nest with a bunch of jackasses. There's nothing to be taken away from that, other than we're lucky we didn't get killed or something. These are desperate people.
Fackler: I think magic culture can be very useful. I didn't walk away from this thing like, 'That was fucked up, and we shouldn't be trying to learn about these substances,' because I really do think things like ayahuasca and iboga may be things that can help people. Just like with Christianity, or all other religions, there can be fucked up people in these indigenous, magic religions. There's always a human in between you and it.
Marsh: These guys -- Tatyo and his crew -- were white guys from France. Tatyo looks like this Keith Richards burnout from the '60s, this acid casualty who is interpreting these cultures partially for his own gain. I mean, a lot of Americans don't even speak another language. How are they supposed to do another culture's drugs without a go-between? This go-between class -- that's where you get the Heart of Darkness evil. They have western motivations and eastern insights.
Fackler: There's a middleman in most of these situations. But I guess it's just the growing pains of going backwards.
What's at risk when turning this culture into a tourist attraction?
Brockley: Extinction of iboga, for sure. It's already royally stressed.
Fackler: To be honest, I don't think it's really up to us. I, for one, can't tell anyone to do iboga if they're sick. I thought that when I came back from Africa, I'd be telling people such things, but the reality is, I'm just making a film about it. If people see the film and get something out of it, that's great for them. That's what I want. But iboga fucks with your perception of reality. It really does. It make you question, 'Is there a demon in my dreams? Is there an angel in the room with me the whole time? Or are these just different, abstract ways of my mind healing itself?'
Why are people drawn to an experience like that?
Fackler: Whenever there's a veil over anything, I think we're going to want to lift the veil and see what it is. We're bored and curious, and we want to have a different life experience than the generation before us. And there's good intention. There's this new wave of shamanism, and some of those people say they want to heal the world.
Marsh: Westerners aren't really looking for a spiritual answer, but they're looking for an answer to questions like, 'Why am I so depressed? Why am I so alone? Why did I gain 30 pounds?' Maybe there's other answers outside of this weird, narco-capitalist state we live in.
Fackler: For every non-successful iboga story, there's probably a successful one.
IF YOU GO:
Sick Birds Die Easy
7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday, February 12