Kathleen Green’s “The Secret Life of Mushrooms” (2011) is a well-produced, accessible, forty-nine minute, drug-geek’s-eye-view of Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico, the town that launched psilocybin-containing mushrooms from local secret to international psychedelic drug through the pages of Life Magazine.
Cut into steep hillsides at 5,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of the state of Oaxaca (about 175 miles south east of Mexico City), Huautla de Jimenez was the hometown of Maria Sabina, the curandera who in 1955 gave Gordon Wasson the mushrooms he was seeking. Green and her crew visited Huautla and conducted interviews with locals, U.S. expats, and others to tell the strange history of the effect of the international psychedelic spotlight on this small agrarian town.
Although the generalities told in this documentary are not new, Kathleen Green and Dan Glass bring fresh details, humor, wit, and a gentle touch to the story as they gaze, wander, ask questions, and reflect on Huautla. I have two main criticisms of the film. First, some of the cuts between speakers are a little too quick, making it feel a little rushed at points. On the positive side, part of the reason that I found some transitions too fast is that the content of the interviews is interesting enough that it begs for a moment of consideration by the viewer before the next scene begins.
My second minor complaint is that those they interview go uncountered in their criticism of Wasson for lying to Maria Sabina about who he would tell about the mushrooms and in their assessment of his level of responsibility for the problems that followed in his wake. These criticisms are similar to those of Andy Letcher in his 2008 book Shroom. Green and Glass could have provided some counter commentary or softened the effect by indicating, for those new to the topic, that this view of Wasson is not universal.
Dan Glass, as the voice and face of the documentary, is a sympathetic character, obviously interested in the topic and funny without seeming condescending. Overall, the editing is tight, the color is great, and the sound is good enough that the interviewees are all easy to understand, though the sound is somewhat below the standards of the high-end documentaries. The film is blessed with good footage of the town, the hills, and the plants of the area, showing off some of the damp wetness that lands on the hillside from the clouds that blow through the mountaintops. I had hoped to see some footage of the amazing single-donkey-width agricultural terracing from around Huautla, but even without it, The Secret Life of Mushrooms succeeds in giving a good sense of the beautiful landscape.
Green and Glass focus their lens for a time on the syncretic mix of Catholicism, local spirits, and mushroom shamanism, including an interview with non-religious local mushroom enthusiasts who look to be in their mid-20s, and an interview with an older curandera who integrates Catholic and local religious elements into her mushroom healing work.
Though the film delves into some of the negative aspects of the history of entheo/hippy tourism over the 44 years since Wasson published his article “Mushrooms that Cause Strange Visions”, it comes out with a fairly hopeful, positive view of the current state of Huautla de Jimenez.
I’d strongly recommend this film to all psychedelic mushroom geeks as well as to those with a general interest in the topic. Currently you can watch the trailer and read more about this documentary on the spygirlpix website, but it is not yet available for purchase. Please contact the producer through the spygirlpix blog or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about viewing the film. The plan is to have it available on DVD sometime in 2011.
A few quotes from the film:
“You don’t go to the dentist because you like to visit the dentist. You go to the dentist because you have a bad tooth and it’s killing you and you want him to fix it or pull it, one or the other. This is what shamanism is all about, it’s looking for the worst thing you’ve got that’s hanging you up and then removing it.”
“It’s very interesting, the copal. Because the copal is like the key that can open the door [to make] the conversation with God.”
“Stories like Juan Ricardo’s suggest that maybe having a guide along for the trip is the best way to get the results one wants, but shamans are human with the same capacity for jealousy and greed as anyone else.”
“The novelty of the mushroom capital eventually wore off and overall it seems that the attitudes of visitors have become more respectful to their hosts, even if the tradition of how the magic mushrooms have been used has changed.”
“Old, conservative Catholic women will say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with kids today, they don’t even want to take mushrooms anymore!’”
Featured Interviewees: Ben Feinberg, Edward Abse, Ines Cortes Rodriguez, Juan Ricardo, Benardino Garcia Martinez, Jose Luis Figueroa Guerrero, Job Eleazar Peralta Cerqueda.
Produced and Edited by Kathleen Green. Hosted and written by Dan Glass. Camera operators: Kathleen Green and Alex DeCampi. Graphics by Ryan Andrews. Post Production Mix by Adam Chimera. Score by Quinn Raymond, Adam Chimera, and Jose Luis Figueroa Guerrero.
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