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A Shaman’s Journey: The Movie and the Quest/

March 11, 2016

Manawa: A Shaman’s Journey:   As many of you know, I’ve been working a fictional film for the past two years. The film, under development will portray the current struggles of indigenous peoples to protect their their rainforest communities – from the ravages of oil, mining, agri-business and other threats.


Gerardo Gualinga, farmer, hunter, fisherman, father, Sarayaku citizen reveres a sacred tree of the rainforest

I spent much of February visiting the Sarayaku Kichwa indigenous people of southeastern Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest. The purpose of the trip was to learn and to explore the possibility of partnership with the Sarayaku community. The trip fulfilled both objectives far beyond expectation.

  • This series of posts will describe what I saw, and the deep impact my experience with the Sarayaku had on me.
  • Eriberto Gualinga, spent hours envisioning the movie and put together a summary and letter of intent describing the movie including the intent to maximize the men, woman and children in the acting and production of the movie.

Update: Last week (March 15), The Sarayaku government formally agreed to partner in the development and production of the movie.

Why a Big Screen Drama? There are many excellent documentaries on the topic; however, we believe that a “big screen” movie packed with action, suspense, passionate romance, the beauty and perils of the rainforest, the mystery of shamans (both good and evil), passion and romance, can greatly expand audiences and public awareness.



Eriberto Gualinga, Sarayaku cinematographer

I chose to approach the Sarayaku for several compelling reasons. They have in-depth experience with film making and have been successful in using documentaries as an essential element in their decades long struggle to defend their ancestral territory from oil development. Eriberto Gualinga’s Children of the Jaguar won the Best Documentary  award at the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival in 2012.


Melo and leaders and Inter American Court

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Members of the Sarayaku Tribe testify with their attorney at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. —>

Secondly, to defend their existence, the Sarayaku have modernized selectively, embracing technology, communications, political alliances, and the courts, though always in ways that preserve and enhance their culture and their sacred relationship with nature. Through their fierce determination, courage, and savvy,  they have been successful.  Yet their struggle continues. A few months ago, the government of Ecuador announced it had issued concessions to a Chinese oil company. (More to come).

The path forward: I feel fortunate and thankful that Eriberto Gualinga and many other leaders of the Sarayaku have embraced this movie project. Our preliminary thoughts:

  • The movie will be filmed on location and most of the cast will be Sarayaku women, men and children.
  • We will use the project to train members of the community in all aspects of film production, using outside experts as advisers.
  • I will work with Eriberto Gualinga and others to revise the original screenplay to more closely fit the history and circumstances of the Sarayaku people.
  • Mr. Gualinga will serve as principal director with coaching from an accomplished director with a record of human rights and environmental advocacy.

Development: In the next few months, I will be giving a series of presentations to environmental organizations, film boards and foundations to raise funding for the project. We will also plan to bring Eriberto Gualinga to the U.S. for a speaking tour to enhance these efforts. Moreover, we will use every step to foster media coverage to boost support for indigenous peoples and their rights.

Critical messages: There is broad understanding that preservation of the world’s rainforests is necessary to curb runaway climate change and preserving the planet’s biodiversity. The movie, however, will emphasize a less appreciated point: The best way to preserve rainforests is to protect the rights and territories of indigenous peoples, the guardians, who have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.

Defenders of the rainforest

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The Google Earth image shows deforested areas (light colored) in the developed area east of the Andean highlands. Further to the east, the the undisturbed rainforest is solid dark green; this area includes the Sarayaku territory.


Family at the chakra

The children contribute to the work of the harvest.


Living with Sarayaku families gave me something else: An intangible feeling of well-being that comes from the human heart and draws from the roots of the forest, our own human roots that we “the civilized” must learn to nourish.


The little girl with Canasta

A perfectly sized basket for carrying tubers homeward


One of the objectives of the film is to contrast this compassionate respect with the uncaring greed, avarice and brutality imposed by profit-driven multinational corporations and complicit governments.

Join our journey:  Please share this post. If you are interested in organizing a fundraising event or to support this project, or know of others who might be interested, please contact me at or call at (301) 780-7990.

Contributions: You can contribute at our Indiegogo site and thank those who have already done so!


Chronology and acknowledgements: Many people have contributed in a various ways to this project. The idea for the movie first emerged more than two years ago during a film acting course at the New York Film Academy to celebrate my 70th birthday. I realized that my real passion was storytelling rather than acting. Michelle Best our acting prof gave our class a one-page, bare-bones dialogue. In it an elder tells a young man to avoid an a disastrous confrontation. I shaped the story: A yoga mat became a dugout canoe, the floor a river in the rainforest; the old man (me, a shaman), and my young classmate (his impetuous protege). After several takes, I found my inner shaman.

Weeks passed and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. Something was pushing me, perhaps an indigenous whisper from childhood? The lore of nature and mysticism? I wrote a 30-page “synopsis,” for a full movie. I thank Michael Laibson , another NY Film Academy faculty member and past producer of some of TV’s most celebrated soaps for his sage advice and continued encouragement.

I delved, read, went to conferences, talked to anthropologists, met with touring indigenous shamans and leaders and watched lots of documentaries. My conviction to tell a story, one with a message about the humanity, dignity and courage of indigenous peoples and their struggle to survive the onslaught of profit driven development.


The Shaman Speaks: In this photo taken at a 2014 conference in San Francisco, I meet with Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman from the Brazilian province of Amazonas, and an international leader in the struggle to preserve the rights and territories of indigenous people of the indigenous rights movement. Kopenawa, a true shaman of the “two worlds,” is an important source of information and inspiration. See his book, The Falling Skywhich describes his personal history and the spiritual basis for the Yanomami relationship with community and nature.

 The dismal art of screenplay: A screenplay is not like a book, where anything goes. If you don’t follow every one of many exacting format rules, your masterpiece will wind up in a producer’s overflowing wastebasket. So I took a course at the Washington Writers’ Center  where I met Monica Lee Bellais,  screenwriter and producer, a “shaman of the scripts” who helped me to craft a solid screenplay. But….

 Change of venue:  The original script (finished last year)  focused on indigenous peoples of Brazil whose territories and communities will be submerged by the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project.  However, a number of new friends including Natalie Kreidieh  (photographer and film maker) and Branden Barber (Board of Directors Amazon Watch) suggested that I reach out to the Sarayaku Kichwa of Ecuador and its accomplished cinematographer/documentary producer  Eriberto Gualinga. (The link includes a number of short videos that portray the Sarayaku, their culture, their forest home, and their music.)

Mr. Gualinga’s Children of the Jaguar  (online) portrays how the Sarayaku people stopped oil development through the Inter-American Human Rights Court of the Organization of American States (OAS). The movie won Best Documentary at the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival in 2012. This movie was instrumental in my decision to travel to Ecuador in order to learn and to see whether collaboration with the Sarayaku was possible.

The journey: 

Yury Guerra

Yury Guerra

My trip to Ecuador last month (Feb. 2016) was arranged by Malia Everette, President of Altruvistas, and Yury Guerra, Altruvista’s South America Program Director who served as my trip organizer, interpreter and companion, Yury, who opened both doors and hearts.

My  visit with the Sarayaku Kichwa community was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life. For this I give thanks to Don Sabino, the great shaman, his wife Dona Corina, to their daughter Patricia Gualinga and to their sons, Gerardo Gualinga and Dona Corina. From the Gualinga family and many others, I saw a people who live in harmony with nature, who work hard for their basic needs, and who do so with a sense of purpose, joy and a deeply felt desire to give back.  


I feel that so many people are sharing this journey. I imagine hundreds of dugouts on the Bobonaza River. Family and friends, co-conspirators. Children going to school wave to us from the bank. Will it rain? Will we catch fish today? How deep is the water? Paths of mud and stone. The sacred tree’s giant buttresses  dwarfs the hunters.  The smile of a woman. Feathery yellows, blues and reds. The scent of flowers.

Now the dance. Every two years the Sarayaku men go on a hunting expedition that lasts for several weeks. (Link to video). The tapirs, monkeys, pigs and fish taken are preserved with smoke and fire. The hunt finished, the men return in canoes; their faces painted, their heads adorned with brightly colored feathers. The women have prepared a great feast and when the men arrive with their bounties, the celebration begins and goes on for four days.  Why every other year? So large a harvest each year would threaten the populations of game on which the Sarayaku depend.

Stay tuned:  The next posts, with lots of photos, will detail my visit with my gracious hosts, the Sarayaku Kichwa Indigenous People of  the Amazon Rainforest. And you’ll learn more about the movie as the journey unfolds: Coming Posts. Stay tuned.

  • How did I get there?
  • The incredible geography of Ecuador from the Andes to the Rainforest
  • Family life, children, education, and their participation in work
  • The roles of men and women (don’t be fooled by initial appearances)
  • How the Sarayaku beat Big Oil and Bad Government:
  • The Sarayaku arsenal: Internet, media, law suits, shear determination and courage
  • The new threat from oil (The government’s new oil concession a Chinese oil giant.
  • Democracy and decision-making
  • The Sarayaku leadership at home and internationally
  • Societal structure and geography
  • The rainforest and river
  • Hunting, Fishing, Farming: What’s on the menu?
  • The Great Shaman: Don Sabino: wisdom
  • My cleansing ceremony
  • Progress reports
  • On-going projects: The “Path of Flowers,” The Sarayaku nursery, and others
  • The music of the Sarayaku
  • The new story and revised screenplay










2 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
    March 12, 2016 10:53 pm

    Very true.

  2. treehugger permalink
    March 12, 2016 10:46 pm

    The pictures of the children so eager to contribute to the harvest reminded me of children everywhere .Most children at a young age want to be a part of family life. Whatever the task may be.

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