Songs of the Vine

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Maira Clancy and Blake Montgomery

Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:

‘Songs of the Vine’ is a VR documentary shot in the Peruvian Amazon, focusing on the healing modalities of the Shipibo, an Indigenous group native to the Amazon rainforest. Their culture is well-known for its ancient practices of shamanism and sacred plant medicine, including a mastery of the visionary ayahuasca brew.


What motivated you to make this film?

After spending time together in the Peruvian Amazon with traditional Shipibo healers in January 2016, we were inspired to collaborate with them on a creative project, to bring more awareness to Shipibo culture and their traditional healing modalities. We believed that virtual reality would be a powerful medium to capture their exquisite medicine songs, as well as immerse viewers in the rejuvenating beauty and power of the Amazon rainforest.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

We hope that viewers will walk away with a deeper respect for, and interest in, Indigenous Amazonian culture, traditional plant medicine, and the environmental rights of the Amazon rainforest and the people who call it home.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

– Indigenous rights and sovereignty

– Traditional plant medicine

– Responsible and ethical use of ayahuasca as a medicine

– Environmental justice and cultural conservation in the Amazon rainforest


Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

“Clouds Over Sidra” was the first example of a VR documentary that inspired us to utilize the medium in an effort to amplify marginalized voices and bring more attention to social issues.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

We used GoPros in a six-camera monoscopic VR rig, as well as a number of different microphones built to withstand extreme weather conditions, in order to record both the medicine songs of the healers, as well as the ambient orchestra of the surrounding jungle.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

While shooting “Songs of the Vine,” we were incredibly fortunate to receive traditional plant healing from the Shipibo healers we were working with. This experience played a crucial role in deepening the elements of respect, gratitude, and reciprocity in our approach to the project.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

A special technique we experimented with was varying the height of the camera rig during shooting, to give the viewer an unusual perspective of the environment. For example, in a few shots we placed the camera high in the treetops, while in another sequence we used a miniature tripod to bring the viewer all the way down to the bottom of the forest floor. We did this in an effort to immerse the viewer in the dense, surreal landscapes of the Amazon in unexpected ways, and also to abstract the sense of scale as a viewer exploring this enormous, mysterious, and powerful rainforest.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

From the beginning of the project, we set out to make an educational VR piece about the traditional healing modalities of the Shipibo, primarily focusing on their work with ayahuasca. The final film didn’t stray far from our original vision for the project. However, during production, we realized that the medicine songs, called ikaros, were the thread that wove the whole documentary together. The ikaros are also an element that’s often overlooked in media coverage around ayahuasca shamanism, although it is such a crucial pillar of the medicine work – arguably just as important as the ingestion of the ayahuasca brew itself. As musicians and sound nerds ourselves, we were excited to shine more of a light on the ikaros to honor this sacred and ancient oral tradition.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

It was one of the deepest honors of our lives to work closely with the Shipibo healers featured in “Songs of the Vine,” to build sweet and respectful relationships with them, to personally receive the healing described throughout the documentary, and to help build a new platform to share their environmental and spiritual wisdom through the emerging technology of virtual reality. It was also so fun to share our work-in-progress with them and see them watching themselves in virtual reality through a headset for the very first time!


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Make films about issues that matter to you and are close to your heart. Don’t let self-doubt stop you from experimenting with different challenges. If you’re making a documentary about an issue or community you aren’t directly related to, or about someone else’s story, remember to let them tell their own story, and take a back seat in the role of facilitator. BE THE LISTENER. It’s much more important (and powerful) to amplify the voices of other communities (especially marginalized ones), rather than to interpret and narrate them yourself. Get out of your own way! Your job is not to tell someone else’s story for them, but rather to build bridges and platforms so that they may more easily share their experiences and wisdom to a broader audience – so that their voices may be more easily heard. Always center the voice of the storyteller.

It is an immense gift and privilege to collaborate in these ways – let gratitude, humility, and respect be the guiding lights as you navigate your own ideas, roles, and visions. Recognize your own power and privileges, and how those might show up in your lens of filmmaking. Investigate how to use that power in service, and then do it! Treat everyone as the expert of their own stories, experiences, and practices. Be flexible enough to surrender control – the final product will thank you.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

Maira: I love the production stage. I’m most excited about being on location, working closely with other people, creative problem-solving, artistically framing shots, and recording sound on the spot.

Blake: Production is amazing and exhilarating, but it’s exhausting too. After the production is over, I feel immense relief. I enjoy the methodical nature of the editing process, and its limitations, being that you can only work with the footage you’ve already shot. The open-ended possibilities of the production stage can be overwhelming for me.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

For this project, it ended up being a couple of cheap but invaluable hand fans, in order to quickly cool off the cameras to avoid overheating in the 90° – 100°F temperatures of the Amazon. They were crucial to the success of our shoots, as the compactly packed cameras in the rig would inevitably overheat and die, disrupting the whole production, and cooling them off again was imperative to getting the shots we needed. They were a very random, last-minute dollar store buy, meant to just cool us off during the day, but they were the total heroes of the entire production. A good reminder that intuition works in mysterious ways!


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