Hushahu, a shaman from the Amazonian tribe of the Yawanawá, on the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. Photograph: Supplied
VR artist Lynette Wallworth returns with a film that brings the transcendental experience of Brazil’s Yawanawá people to life in vivid colour.
I am deep in the Amazonian jungle, somewhere near the Gregório River. My vision is affected by a hallucinogenic tea called Ayahuasca, referred to by the locals as Uni. A huge and majestic old tree towers in front of me. A patch of bright psychedelic colour appears in my vision and moves with my gaze, as if projected from another plane of existence. Before I have properly come to terms with this striking tableau, my position changes. I realise I am now inside the tree.
This is a scene from Awavena, the new virtual reality film from acclaimed artist Lynette Wallworth. My actual location is Carriageworks, Sydney, where this impressive work had its Australian premiere on Friday as part of Create NSW’s annual 360 Vision virtual reality and augmented reality event. Awavena is showing there until 9 December.
When the film has ended an attendant helps me remove my headset and escorts me into an adjacent area. This experience is not over. I am given a backpack and two controller-like hand devices. Another headset is placed over my eyes. Here I enter a virtual rendering of the jungle, which is no longer a seated experience but an actual space I walk through and explore.
The jungle responds to me. When I wave my hands streaks of blue light appear before me. If I breathe deeply, or say anything, particles of white light shift and disperse according to my breath.
The forest where the Yawanawá people live. Photograph: Greg Downing
Out of the virtual wilderness and into another room again, Wallworth herself is waiting for me. In a dazed state I ask the multi-hyphenate artist to clarify whether this is actual reality – not the virtual kind. She assures me it is, and tells me more about the people that Awavena captures: the Amazonian tribe of the Yawanawá, who use Uni, in part, to contemplate the forest and their place within it.
“The intention was to replicate the way they see the forest in that state,” Wallworth explains. “They would talk about Uni as a way of providing them with a different perception of realities. That is partly the gift of this work, and the core challenge for me. How do I replicate that experience using this technology?”
Wallworth’s highly ambitious project (which will be adaptedinto an animated feature film) has previously played at this year’s Venice and Sundance film festivals and the World Economic Forum. It has been championed by the Yawanawá people as a realistic representation of the tea and its transcendental qualities.
“I think this experience is the same power as when you drink Uni. The power of the camera puts you into the power of the vision of the medicine,” says Tashka Yawanawá, chief of the Yawanawá people, who speaks to me over the phone.
“Uni is a mixture of green leaves and vine. We mix and cook and after three hours you can drink a tea. The tea gives you a vision. This vision guides you to a song by the shaman. It has the power to show you things from the past, the present and the future. The Yawanawá use Uni for healing when people are sick, for visions, and to guide our people.”
Awavena director Lynette Wallworth with Tashka, chief of the Yawanawá. Photograph: Greg Downing
In 2016, Tashka watched Wallworth’s pioneering VR film Collisions, for which the film-maker (along with producer Nicole Newnham, who also produced Awavena) became the first person in history to win a news and documentary Emmy award for VR.
Tashka recalls that during early conversations about a potential collaboration, “Lynette was talking about virtual reality and all these ideas. I said to her, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I like it’. I went back to my community and I told my people, ‘I met this crazy woman who has a big vision. I think we can do something together’.”
The Yawanawá community – which fights to protect 200,000 hectares of Amazonian rainforest – decided that the story they wanted to tell was about Hushahu, who bucked centuries of tradition to become the first female Yawanawá shaman.
Joel Yawanawá looks at dailies in the cardboard VR viewer. ‘This film is our people sending a message to the world,’ says Tashka Yawanawá. Photograph: Greg Downing
Those trippy colours I saw in the virtual jungle were scientifically accurate, in the sense that they were gleaned from real creatures. The director worked with marine biologist Dr Anya Salih from the University of Western Sydney, whose area of research is the study of the fluorescent gene in creatures.
“She went out every night into the Yawanawá forest,” recalls Wallworth, “with these very specific blue torches, a guide and gumboots so she wouldn’t get bitten by snakes, and looked for fluorescence.”
Awavena’s director of photography, Greg Downing, then filmed the creatures she brought back with extremely light sensitive cameras. When elder women of the Yawanawá tribe saw these colours they called out “Uni” – recognising them from their experiences on the tea.
“They know those colours,” explains Wallworth. “They were seeing exactly those colours in that state. We just have a different technology for observing them. A different way of looking.”
Tashka says his community are “very happy” with Awavena.
“This film is our people sending a message to the world. The message is that we feel, as human beings, we are part of nature. Everybody is part of nature and everybody one day will come back to nature,” he says.
“We all have a responsibility to live, protect, care for our planet. Our nature. We are not here just on vacation. We are all leaving. And we need to leave a safe planet for future generations.”
• Awavena by Lynette Wallworth is showing at Carriageworks until 9 December