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DeZ Vylenz Log

A captain's log of activities and projects, affiliations and developments involving the Shadowsnake ship and various guerilla film expeditions. Updated in between storms by DeZ Vylenz, Writer - Director - Martial Arts Choreographer

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Shuar Shamans

As mentioned last week, I was plunged into an extraordinary time capsule from the past, present and future, the ancient tradition of the Shuar tribe rooted in Ecuador. For centuries they defied the European conquest and finally abandoned their practice of headhunting in the 20th century, making their step towards adaptation with the “modern” world, without losing their tradition and cultural pride. The majority still live in the rain forest and only speak their traditional language, except for the few with formal education, who also speak Spanish.

A few links on Wikipedia:

Don't know this organization, but for info on Ayuahasca, Vine of the Soul (and pictures of the Shuar shamans) :

Having arrived on Monday 2 July in Amsterdam for business, meetings and the usual mundane stuff that comes with the entrepreneurial responsibilities, on Tuesday I suddenly received a call from Mano --a Mexican film maker friend-- that the younger of the Shaman brothers, Miguel Chiriap, was in town before travelling to Germany (where they are often work in association with the Heidelberg university) and Spain. This would be a rare opportunity to meet him at Quetzal’s home, a Maya from Mexico who has been living in Europe for over 20 years, but besides his work in the petrochemical industry functions as translator and organizer of healing ceremonies. Refreshing to see positive and driven people for a change after all the talk and big blow up egos in the media industry, where it’s mostly form over substance. It’s an annoying and constant reminder of how many people believe that our reality only exists on a physical, material plane.

Even those with experience in mushrooms, Peyote and several of the available psychedelics seem to use it merely for recreational use, just to please the senses. To the medicine men, the curanderos, the plant is a powerful entity and they always refer to it as “la medicina”, the medicine. It’s not some vehicle to get you high, but a powerful ally to heal and teach things about life.


There are too many fascinating details to go into here, as it turned out to be an incredible private Ayahuasca ceremony with just three of us, with a whole range of fascinating music instruments we played, herbs and chants that purified the intention and drive, the shaman guiding our consciousness through the sacred spirits of the plants, animals and so on. All too complicated or personal too describe and probably only recognisable for those who have had similar experiences within spiritual traditions. It can be compared to being attached to some virtual reality kind of machine, with the hyper reality level kicking in, all senses heightened to a super alertness. If we had been in the jungle instead of a flat, the vibrations of all plants and living creatures would have been visible, audible and tangible.

Although I had a few years of Spanish in secondary modern school, it’s not my first language and I haven’t really found time to pick it up or practice my fluency in the last decade. Yet I understood nearly everything he was talking about, how there should be no fear between people, and respect for man, woman, plant, animals, seed, semen, womb, universe, God, in fact for everything alive within and around us. It seemed like days, or hours or minutes, time was suddenly a ridiculously limiting human concept. We started around 22:30 and were finished at 7:00 AM without any exhaustion, feeling completely energized as if awoken from some deep sleep or dream. Yet all the time we were fully conscious, while rain poured down heavy and violently outside with thunder and lightning.

But what is also really positive about all this: They are collecting contributions from people to attend the healing ceremonies and build a school for their collective of 18 tribes. Most are illiterate, so education is high on their priority list. Though still deeply rooted within their ancient tradition, the shaman brothers are educated and their children are in university. Their basic philosophy is that consciousness and knowledge strengthen a human being’s will and creates better understanding and more love between people. As said before, in sceptical times like this, whenever people hear the word “love” they think of the product marketed towards consumers in the form of valentine gifts or any of the saccharine meanings and perversions. In the end it’s about a deep appreciation for the powerful gift of life we’re being given, if our body and mind is healthy we often take it for granted without realizing how much wealth that is. No money in the world can buy that, but it can be maintained; and gratitude and mutual respect are definitely something these shamans propagate.

This is the same in the monotheistic religions of “respect thy neighbour” and “do onto others as you want done onto you” or the way that Samurai or martial artists from various cultures used to write poetry in respect of nature and compassion –or meditate-- as a counterpart to their way of battle.

The fact that there is such a high demand from people –often from high positions in Europe-- to invite these travelling shamans at healing rituals seems to indicate a growing interest in understanding our reality beyond the material and mundane level. Unfortunately, there are often quacks and frauds posing as real healers. Their greed and incompetence gives the real ones and the entire occupation a bad name. Fact is that a real shaman has specialized in healing and understanding consciousness and the body over an entire lifetime, acquiring skills and knowledge in so many areas. It is a great responsibility and cannot be take on by everyone. Botanical knowledge is merely one aspect.

Another interesting detail that just came flashing back: Miguel had a beautifully self crafted two string violin, very light and smooth cedar wood, with the head of a woman and her body on the front shaped by two serpents. Alan Moore’s choice of the caduceus or double helix snakes and obviously my own affiliation with Shadowsnake, immediately sprang to mind. Each probably had a certain reason why they chose the serpent (or vice versa), but that’s getting too complicated to go into cosmology and symbolism right now. You can write entire books just on those topics.

Fact is, in an increasingly materialistic society, occasional experiences like this are necessary for us to realize that the physical world is only a glimpse of what really exists. Our senses are limited, and even more so with all the advertisement and programming bombarding our brains. But most of the time, we are free to make our own choices.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Powerful Vibes

Powerful Vibes. In good and in bad ways. All of which will affect my film making in a profound way, as I don’t write my fiction within a vacuum. My primary interest in myth is the truth, the journey we undertake as humans, tiny creatures within a vast universe of which we only understand a glimpse with our limited senses and instruments.

Last week, a lot of bad vibes again in the media. Attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, fortunately with no serious casualties. Newspaper and TV headlines adding to the public fear. A good thing is that the people in Great Britain remain quite sensible and the majority seem to understand that this is the work of a small group of people, not a majority. As far as I know the whole concept of Jihad was always intended to be a spiritual battle within an individual to conquer one’s own demons and live a clean path.

This has now been taken literally by militant factions, thus bringing the religion of Islam in a more negative light in the media, resulting in casualties inflicted amongst Muslims as well. Local government politics, historical feuds and events, there are so many factors that only now a clearer picture of the causes and symptoms of global terrorism is coming together. The UK had experienced the IRA before, Germany the Baader Meinhoff group and in The Netherlands some minor incidents (train jacking in the 70s) with the Moluccan secessionist groups, so it was not entirely new on European soil.

Even though I grew up experiencing a military coup d’etat, a dictatorship with all its blatant propaganda and murders of the opposition, none of it was racially or religiously based. It was mostly just a struggle for power and money. Suriname is a very diverse and plural society where Idul Fitr (end of the Ramadan fasting month) is a national holiday, just as X-mas is or Holi (Phagwa) a Hindu holiday, or the abolition of Slavery on the 1st July (1863). In one of the main roads in the city centre, there is one of the largest mosques in the Caribbean next to one of the largest Jewish Synagogues and there has never been any violence or tension between the various religions or cultures.

In fact, you join friends in their celebration out of respect and genuine curiosity for their way of life and worship. In Morocco this kind of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims has also been the case, so extremism and friction have something to do with context and cannot be used to generalize a whole group of people. But while growing up in Suriname, I –and most of my friends—took for granted that this cultural adaptability was something special and not common in most countries where the population is relatively homogenous.

“Terrorism” is a relatively modern term and has been used and propagated by different groups all over the world, very often a group that wants to make some kind of statement, whatever that may be. People born on their own soil have been know to resort to violence whether that be Japan, Peru, the USA (e.g. the Unabomber) and so on. Considering violence and war are inherent to human nature, the conversion to a society of total peace seems difficult as a lot of frustration and anger is often directed in more immediate and violent means. Hurt leads to more hurt and so on, spiralling into a vortex of hatred.

Against this whole background and events over the last weekend I had been thinking a lot about how our global civilization as a whole is still so fragmented and engaged in competitive friction. Despite great technological leaps, spiritually there is still no clear evolution in sight, at least not on a major scale. The problem is that even on an individual level, most people don’t truly know who they are, what they want or appreciate in life, let alone manage to empathize with others. There are of course small groups of people worshipping deities or the universe in a pure way, to express gratitude for our life, food, friendships and most of all love.

This might seem too airy-fairy or “70s” to scores of people in these sceptical times, but this practice is exactly what the Shuar shaman brothers Hilario and Miguel from Equador are spreading across the world. And airy-fairy is the last thing this ancient tribe of powerful hunter-warriors can be accused of. They are perhaps known by most as “Jivaros” or “head hunters” which they don’t like to be labelled as, because it was a more derogative term given by Spanish missionaries and colonizers, who never managed to conquer or convert the proud and fierce Shuar tribe.

The shrunken heads were a big fad in the late 19th century in Europe, and up to this day the entire procedure remains a big secret of chemistry. A human head could be shrunk to the size of an orange, with the skin mummified and the face recognizable, with the eyes and mouth sewn together. Their knowledge of plants and chemical components within the Amazon forest is tremendous. E.g. Curare, a powerful toxin used for hunting is a well known feat and Ayahuasca is famous for its sacred and intense psychedelic properties and used through various religious or indigenous groups around the Amazon.

Hilario Chirap is the Shaman Chief of about 18 Shuar tribes, totalling a rough number of 18,000. Next time I’ll write about an extraordinary meeting with Miguel --his younger brother--an equally gifted shaman and musician while he was passing through Amsterdam. It was a great unexpected uplift from all the negative vibes to see a traditional culture –with the equivalent status of royalty-- from deep within the Amazon jungle travelling to bring positive knowledge to “modern” society.

Posted by DeZ Vylenz  

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Contemporary Cinema

Last Wednesday of the month, which was supposed to be the "classic" film comment day, but my brain is fried from running from meetings East-West, North-South on London's hectic underground this week. Needed some light fluff last Sunday, so saw Ocean's 13, which actually was entertaining and quick paced, and it didn't annoy me like the other parts where it was a lot about characters being super cool and hip and talking the jive and all that. But though Soderbergh knows his film language, it's still popcorn fare that you won't really remember after a few days.

Most people who know the underworld won't recognise any of the hip characters in the real world (with a few exceptions), so in that sense the gangster loan sharks in Killing of a Chinese Bookie (which I saw on Monday) were very realistic in their peasant like stubbornness to just get their money from their victims. A simple money making racket, where only intimidation was needed, no charm, no style, no frills.. But life imitates art of course, so over the last few years plenty of "alternative" entrepeneurs have taken a liking to the flash and the bling.

Of course there are various shades and occupation within the underworld, so nothing is hard set and in fiction every writer or filmmaker works with their own version of how they see the underworld. And Soderbergh's film is of course meant as a comedy, while Cassavetes' is a character study. Killing of a Chinese Bookie has some great moments, but some bits I did find a bit too long, especially the night club cabaretier annoyed me after a while. But it still is a brooding and captive piece of 70s cinema, and back then it was even more difficult to produce films independently, so the more respect to Cassavetes for putting his own money in.

As for the more established Hollywood filmmakers, it's odd to see most of them who've won Oscars and all kinds of prizes making all the light stuff, while they could venture further. Maybe it's something about getting established, maybe it's to do with age, maybe it's the comfort of luxury that takes away the urgency and drive, but there are very few filmmakers who manage to make really interesting or edgy stuff once they've become "respectable" or "bankable".

But sneaking into other screens of the multiplex to see what else was going on, made all of the films above masterpieces of the century compared to the teeniebopper leveled stuff like Fantastic Four (saw the last 10 minutes or so), or some Bollywood flick I can't even repeat the title of, with a Taj Mahal backdrop in the background and a superslick groomed actors couple slimeballing each other in some song, then there was Vacancy (last 15 minutes), more standard modern horror material.

To be honest, the craft of storytelling, directing and narrative is not there anymore. It's all about the slickness and the glam. And I'm sure around the world some great films are made, but most of us will never see them in the cinemas or even hear about them as the prospects of distribution are still bleak. What cyan ye do. It's the nature of the beast.

Posted by DeZ Vylenz  

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Forgotten Rebels of Cinema

Been a crazy week again, picking up on business in London, but managed to make some time last Sunday and watch John Cassavetes' Opening Night at the National Film Theatre, where the BFI has a whole monthly retrospective thing going on. His films are well known of course for great actor performances. A Woman Under the Influence (again with his wife Gena Rowlands) is another great classic. In the hands of another director these actor driven films might have easily come across to me --I usually prefer some plot & structure--as narcissistic, depressing or too pretentiously "arty", but Cassavetes just has that touch that gets you entirely involved in the emotional fabric of his films.

On top of that his whole approach of putting his own money into his projects makes him all the more one of the independent maverick champions. It's a shame most of contemporary audiences keep watching films not older than a few years, because the 70s in particular still has truckloads of ignored classics.

For more on the man:

This Friday I hope I find a spare hole in the schedule to check out Killing of a Chinese Bookie again, which I saw many years ago.But it was one of those moments when you're so tired after 10 hours of work and university the warm womb of cinema darkness lulls you in and out of sleep. In terms of emotional intensity and the raw energy of the streets, it's in the same urban zone as Mean Streets and another one of my favourites: Bad Lieutenant, which is still Abel Ferrara's best film I think and possibly also Harvey Keitel's most intense role. I haven't seen all of his work, except some snippets passing by in those rare moments I'm near a TV, and a lot of it is rather more art house. But when I saw Bad Lieutenant back in the 90s, its raw energy just gripped me by the throat and only released me once the credits rolled up.

Below are a few links, Ferrara about Madonna, Jimmy Page and the crooked side of the film business (his robber baron reference must give every filmmaker involved with development and production some deja vu jolts). Reading about that Kashmir sample that's now unfortunately removed from the film makes me value those days in the Amsterdam film houses (most of them closed down by now) all the more. It really gave the scenes that extra dimension.

The First interview is the most interesting one, check it out:

Short but snappy:

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Waiting Game

Back in London city. From riding a bicycle through Amsterdam's centre with concentric canals and streets --always a great atmosphere in the summer-- to the London underground in a few hours. I guess we do take for granted how fast modern transport is. Several fruitful meetings that should give some momentum to a few new projects, but as usual "development" in the film industry is slower than a Victorian steam engine with even more variables that can grind the endeavours to a halt.

Film is a waiting game, and I can be patient if necessary, but that whole Waiting For Godot modus operandi is not my thing. Same way that a bike is slower in absolute terms than for example a bus, but at least you keep moving and don't need to wait on a tram or bus that might not even show up because of technical breakdown. Similarly, it still seems best to continue production on an independent basis, although it's a lot of hassle.

If I had to wait on the "perfect" budget or production and distribution companies to help me out, The Mindscape of Alan Moore would still be in development hell. Actual shoot and production took 2 years, the remaining 4 years were spent dealing with companies, promotion, festivals and preparing the DVD release (roughly over the last 8 months). Considering Terry Zwigoff spent 9 years on Crumb, shooting bits and fundraising at the same time, it's not that bad, but limitations and obstacles are not things you want to put up with your whole life through. It's good in the beginning to gain experience, learn about hard graft and determination, shaping character and all that, but at some point you just want to tell stories and bring new worlds onto screen, never seen before, except in your head where they are constantly simmering to occassionally reach a boiling point.

Hopefully the next one will be far easier, with dedicated producers on board which will allow me to focus on directing and writing, but hearing about established and acclaimed directors who spend years getting their films off the ground, it's best to keep moving ahead unilaterally. Anything else that happens is a great bonus, but film is not the only thing I'm focusing on, although I still find it the most exciting and unpredictable medium if things really work and great production teams and crew are at the right place and the right time. With a fistfull of dollars to fuel the machine.

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