Yagé is Not Just a Plant: Yagé is Our Life

January 16, 2017

“We went to Putumayo planning to make one type of film, but ended up making something very different,” explained Neil White during a presentation at CEU’s School of Public Policy on January 12. The film that White and Lesly Vela Cobo traveled to Colombia to make was about the indigenous communities living in southern Colombia and their relationship with Yagé (Ayahuasca), a plant that they have used for thousands of years to treat illnesses and also in ritual ceremonies.

White and Vela Cobo changed their plans because of opposition from some members of the community who did not want the film to be made.  This was something they were happy to do.  “We feel strongly that you need to engage with local communities, that they need to have a voice,” White said. “We talk a lot in western societies about what should be done, but rarely about what people want.”

The film that White and Vela Cobo ended up making, Yagé is Our Life, focuses on several Taitas, traditional doctors, who use Yagé to treat patients. Vela Cobo, who is from Colombia, spoke about the enormous knowledge that Taitas have of the hundreds of different plants that grow in the region. During their interviews, the Taitas spoke about the way in which they harvest and use the plant, the dramatic changes that have taken place in recent years, the threat that some of those changes pose to their communities, and some of the ways in which they have responded.

The effectiveness of these plants and of Yagé in particular in treating illnesses such as depression, diabetes, and cancer has sparked a lot of interest from western scientists.  “They approach Yagé very differently,” explained White. “They tend to focus just on the plant and ignore the ritual and setting that are an integral part of how Yagé has traditionally been used.”

In response to a question from CEU/IAS Artist in Residence Yoni Goldstein, White said participating in the Yagé ceremony had been a very personal experience and had not influenced their decisions about how to film the documentary. CEU Media and Visual Education Specialist Jeremy Braverman said that he appreciated the participatory approach to documentary filmmaking that they employed, and how that helped the subjects be active participants in the telling of their own story, despite the many practical obstacles that are inherent in that approach. Olena Fedyuk, who is a fellow at the CEU Center for Policy Studies, commented on how the Taitas had used the film as a platform. “They were very aware of the problems they are facing – the misuse of the plant, the widespread poverty in their communities, the commercialization, etc.”

Vela Cobo stressed the diversity of the 11 communities in Putamayo. “Each one is different. What they all have in common is Yagé,” she said. She went on to explain that they also share an interest in telling their own stories (“of making their own films”) and of the need to preserve their traditions. Vela Cobo pointed to herself as an example of someone who grew up in Colombia without an appreciation for local traditions and culture. “The key is education. The Taitas want to educate the children, but they need resources,” she said.

White and Vela Cobo are planning to make more films about indigenous communities in Colombia. They are also working with these communities through their UK-based non-profit organization Ancestral Seeds, which was born out of the process of making the film, to raise funds for local priorities such as the building of malokas, small structures that are used as meeting places and religious ceremonies.

You can find out more about White and Vela Cobo and the work they are doing at www.ancestralseeds.wordpress.com and on Facebook.