It was noticeable when entering the room where Matteo Norzi, Abou Farman and Ana Cecilia Stieglitz were doing interviews for the day on behalf of their film “Icaros: A Vision” that there was an extra chair in the room, something that could’ve been chalked up to happenstance, except for the fact that the film’s co-director Leonor Caraballo was not with them – at least in the physical sense.
“There’s always a fourth chair,” says Abou Farman of his longtime creative and life partner who passed away during the post-production of “Icaros,” which he co-wrote.
“It’s hard for us to explain it,” adds Norzi, who co-directed “Icaros” with Carabello. “She was like a force — a tornado — this woman.”
It was through Leo, as all three affectionately call her, that Farman, an anthropologist and artist, and Norzi, a visual artist, first met and began collaborating together, eventually leading to their journey into the heart of Peru to tell the story of a woman named Angelina (Ana Cecilia Stieglitz) who braves the wilds of the Amazon River in search of the Anaconda Cosmica clinic, a place she believes holds the cure to her breast cancer. If the film feels unmistakably authentic, it’s because it’s a journey Caraballo, Norzi and Farman went on themselves in an effort to cure what ailed Carabello, yet due to their collective artistry, it becomes an ecstatically transporting experience throughout this realm and beyond as it follows Angelina and the shaman (Arturo Izquierdo) whose help she seeks as he deals with his own malady through Ayahuasca-induced trips that reorient them spiritually in order to repair themselves physically.
With a particularly evocative use of sound design and gorgeously wrought imagery of the Shipibo-Conibo community, in which the filmmakers embedded themselves in, committing to film an entire way of life that is threatened by the encroachment of the modern outside world, “Icaros: A Vision” nobly treads the line between reality and a dream state in such a way that it not only gives Western audiences a new cultural perspective, but an entirely new way of seeing the world around them generally. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Norzi, Farman and Stieglitz spoke about their own experience making “Icaros,” the loss of a key creative force in Caraballo in the process, and creating the film’s distinctively immersive hallucinatory sequences.
How did this come about?
Matteo Norzi: My co-director, Leonor Caraballo, and I went to Peru for the first time in 2012 and [went to] the same healing center became the location of the film. We met this shaman with an eye problem, Arturo, who actually ended up being the main actor of the film, and we started working on a script about a shaman going blind in juxtaposition with a Westerner looking for a vision. Then later on, Leonor got diagnosed with a stage 4 breast cancer, so we introduced the character of Angelina, an American woman who goes to the Amazon so she could get a miracle. Both these big events in our life became the inspiration for the story.
Ana, how did you get involved?
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: I saw a casting notice through Actors Access, and when I read the description of the character, I was immediately drawn to it. It called to me very strongly and I submitted a video and I never got called, so I let it go. Then a couple of months later, a friend and actor came and said, “Oh, you know, they’re casting this film that you would be great for.” I was like, “What film?” “Icaros.” I said, “I already submitted for that film and I never … “ [My friend said,] “You should try it again.” I got in touch with them, I went for a in-person audition and we spent I think two hours talking and doing scenes. Two days later, Abou called me and said, “Are you jumping onboard?”
Matteo Norzi: It was a different, difficult casting call because we were looking for a blonde woman who speaks Spanish [specifically] because the blonde woman is a mythological figure in Amazonian mythology, so she was supposed to be a foreigner but also, she’s part of the legends of the Amazon. We were looking for someone able to be act in Spanish in a comfortable way.
On a film like this, where you’re filming in a village with the real community that lives there, do you need to be invited in?
Matteo Norzi: Of course, collaboration and friendship are the best words to describe what happened. All of a sudden, we were one [entity]. We didn’t stop thinking about each other and…
Abou Farman: Everybody on the set, but also the main people behind it — Leo, Matteo and myself — all come from the art world and we recognized immediately that [the indigenous] people there were themselves artists, so there was an engagement between art practices, art worlds and so on.
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: It was a life-changing experience. The whole experience was a journey in itself and it was incredibly healing, and crazy and deep and wonderful just to work with the shamans. My life was not the same before and after.
Matteo Norzi: During the most crowded days, [we had] a crew of 40 people all in the Amazon with no connection with the exterior [world] and we were sleeping on the set [after filming ended].
Abou Farman: There was also the influence of the Amazon itself in terms of species that interacted with the crew, not always in great ways. A lot of people got sick. A lot of people got attacked, so there was this dealing with the environment that was part of making the film.
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: Yeah, in my experience as a Westerner, just submerging a group of people that are making a film is such a big challenge in and of itself, but if you’re doing it in this condition, going to the jungle for a few days, it’s two big experiences and challenges mixed in together. It was pretty magical what happened there because, being in a race against time and with the weather and it became a beautiful dance. The filmmakers really did an amazing job of putting things together in a magical way.
Matteo Norzi: Plus, you didn’t have to work so much in the film. It feels like it happens by itself.
The film has these interludes traveling down the Amazon, mentioning all the different species that exist there. How did those create a frame for the film?
Matteo Norzi: I go back to the title of the film, “Icaros.” If you ask a local what an Icaro is, they’d say it’s a plant with a mother that comes to you, and this was so hard to understand — and it still is [laughs] — but we try to imagine this journey of a plant with the mother crossing the river, and we saw that it’s a very fragile thing that needed a lot of care. It was going upriver against the forestation.
Abou Farman: Also, that got wrapped in with two things. One was this book that Matteo was in love with, “The Ino Moxo,” where the voiceover is Ana’s wonderful voice reading that book, which comes in the dream, so Matteo’s always like, “We have to include this lyrical, poetic book as part of the film,” so that became part of the journey. It also was time. We realized this person coming has to be outside of time and has to wrap around the linear time of the film.
Matteo Norzi: And the forest is a labyrinthic, claustrophobic location, and the journey of the mother is a straight line, so [being on the river] brings some light into the characters and changes everything.
For Ana, was there a key detail that helped you figure out who this character was?
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: Leo made some very smart choices in terms of creating the character, because although she based Angelina on her own experience, she wanted Angelina to be her own person, so that gave me enormous artistic freedom to find out who Angelina was. So with all of Leo’s experiences, what she was transmitting to me as an actress to inform Angelina’s pain, her fears, and her challenges in that moment of her life throughout the experience, I feel like Angelina took a form of her own and became who she is in the film.
Matteo Norzi: Then there’s an avatar of Angelina as a video game, so we played with these different containers — Leo’s part of the character and the character dreamt itself as an avatar, [inspired a little by] Angelina Jolie as well, so that’s another version of the idea.
Did Leonor’s passing during the production of this change the direction of the film in any way?
Matteo Norzi: Of course, [it was during] post-production. We were editing, and the name of the file the day that Leo passed away became “Afterlife,” so it changed everything. We’re very sad, of course, but there’s no grief when we talk about this [film], at least not today, because Leo directed her own afterlife through this film, so we are here to celebrate the fantastic work that she did.
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: She was an incredibly brave and fierce woman, and had such an artistic vision.
Matteo Norzi: She took the Amazon and she straightened it up, frame after frame. She’s a really fantastic photographer, incredible instinct in dealing with the indigenous community, so there’s no space for grief today.
In the editing, how did you go about the Ayahuasca tripping sequences? Visually, they’re quite evocative and bring in so many different nods to all the elements the film is about, which must’ve been difficult.
Matteo Norzi: We worked on that a lot. First of all, we tried to have the climactic points of the film in the visions and each vision has a different role [in the film], in particular, the first one. That was done by a different editor Adam Zuckerman, that Abou Farman brought in, because his experience was with music video editing. We let the Icaros inspire the edit, at least for the speed and the hypnotic feeling of it. Then we brought in different elements in each scene, including the art-video work of Caraballo Farman, which is the artistic collaboration between Abou Farman and Leonor Caraballo.
Abou Farman: All the work you see in the see in that first MRI sequence, we had created during our practice for the last 15 years in our video work, using the [visual] language that’s in there.
Matteo Norzi: We also used [the idea of] memory, like a deja vu of your own experience, to build the Ayahuasca ceremonies, [since] that’s how pretty much Ayahuasca works. You [create] a metaphor for your life, and they come back to you in a new way.
Abou Farman: It’s crucial to mention Leo, Matteo as well as myself were very adamant that we can’t use the existing language of psychedelic imagery in cinema, and that meant there was nothing we could draw on. We had to invent a new way of saying, okay, this is what we think is an inventive, interesting way of saying hallucination.
Matteo Norzi: It was very much designed with alternation of day and night, day and night. There’s actually part of the experience when you go to the Amazon and try to be in a healing center, because it’s like everyone will be in a waiting room [during the day], then around the evening, you are transporting to a new dimension and the tension grows because everybody knows the same thing is going to happen again.
Sound is also critical to the experience and so immersive throughout the film – did you do anything special in terms of recording it?
Matteo Norzi: Yes, the very first question of the film is “If you stop and listen, what do you hear?” We started recording sound of Icaros and the chants before we even started production, so we built a huge library, then we used it to be the soundscape of the film.
Abou Farman: We saw the soundscape a a kind of vibration for the whole film that carries it through. If you took out all the dialogue, there would be a composition that you could listen to that would have its own vibe.
Matteo Norzi: If you took off even the narrative part, the whole thing would be a ceremony in itself, like a sequence of songs in the jungle.
Abou Farman: Leo was very systematic about collecting the sound at particular times of day, so [we’d go out at] 3 a.m./4 a.m./5 a.m. because the sounds change. The night is very different, so we tried to put that in there and then we had Matteo, Leo and Èlia, the editor, work very hard in preparing the ground work and we had some great sound editors who came in to …
Matteo Norzi: …To enchant it.
There’s also a wonderful maze-like pattern that reoccurs throughout the film that seems to underline certain experience. Is there a certain significance to that?
Matteo Norzi: That’s the art that the Shipibo-Conibo women produce. It’s a very mysterious, beautiful, and intricate idea because the patterns represent a musical score, so it can be read as music, but they also represent medicine in a plant, and they also have a visual [quality] that take the form of a painting, so the Shipibo-Conibo believe these patterns [form] the structure of the dimension of reality. They hide underneath everything, and Ayahuasca is the tool to unveil it.
Abou Farman: It’s just this mind-boggling canvas. They’re very big. It’s almost like this computer-generated algorithm. [The women] just start in a corner by hand and [the patterns] go everywhere. Ana has some [painted] on her fingers. [Ana shows them off proudly.]
What was the premiere like for you guys?
Matteo Norzi: It was fantastic, the best time of my life. I was in a trance. I think the feeling works really well in the room. People were laughing when they’re supposed to laugh and getting scared when they’re supposed to get scared, so it was encouraging.
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz: It was the first time I saw it and it was amazing. I cried a few times. At the same time, watching it for the first time [in rough form] took me back to the experience, but then seeing the finished piece, cutting out myself from it, it was just a beautiful poem up there that was incredibly inspiring and fascinating to watch. It was a second journey that was really, really beautiful and wonderful.