Storyteller: An Interview with Filmmaker Giancarlo Canavesio

MAPS Bulletin Winter 2016: Vol. 26, No. 3 – Annual Report

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Giancarlo Canavesio

Giancarlo Canavesio helped inform tens of thousands of people about the therapeutic effects of psychedelics through the 2013 documentary film Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicine, which he co-produced. The film was just one part of the prolific producer’s efforts to use film as a medium that can advance human consciousness and global healing. A longtime supporter of MAPS, he has generously hosted a fundraising dinner at his New York loft for the past three years, coinciding with the annual conference, Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics. He also accompanied MAPS representatives to Desert Trip in Palm Springs, California last fall. Interview by Jennifer Bleyer, senior editor at Psychology Today.

What did you like most about Desert Trip?

I grew up in Italy, which has a very different musical culture than the U.S., and I wasn’t really familiar with these performers, so I enjoyed getting to know them better. My favorite was Neil Young. Also, the whole experience of being in the desert was great. At first I thought the idea of so many people spending so much to be in the desert was strange, but the desert really grows on you. We went for sunrise in Joshua Tree and it was just magic.

What part do you think music plays in changing culture and bringing about healing?

It has played a major part for millennia. Like my friend Alexandre Tannous says: “Sound is a dimension. If we focus on the harmonic overtones and the complexity of the overtones, we can merge into that dimension. That harmonic series, which includes all the overtones, is sometimes referred to as ‘the living God,’ or the ‘stairway to heaven’ in the esoteric philosophies.”

How is it being a filmmaker who’s open about psychedelics?

Being “out” has been easy because I don’t feel any shame or taboo. There’s so much scientific confirmation about how these compounds, in the right setting, can help with depression, anxiety, addiction and other problems. It’s not even preliminary research at this point. On the other hand, making documentaries about this subject has been very challenging as a business.

What’s next for you as a filmmaker who’s committed to telling stories related to psychedelics?

This winter I’ll be codistributing a documentary called The Last Shaman, directed by my friend Raz Degan, an actor and cinematographer who really understands about narrative arc. The film is about a Harvard student who cures himself of suicidal depression with the Peruvian tribe Shipibo’s plants diet. It’s very challenging for him to find the right shaman, and the audience really feels for him. I think The Last Shaman has all the ingredients for mainstream attention, because unlike other documentaries, it’s not just talking heads and news reports. It has a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. The only way for psychedelic healing films to cross over into the mainstream is if there’s a good story.

What was your first involvement with MAPS?

I’ve had an ayahuasca practice for ten years. I went to a MAPS conference in Oakland back in the beginning of my practice and my mind was blown by the research the organization was doing. I immediately knew I wanted to make a film about psychedelic healing. When I heard that Oliver Hockenhull was already doing this, I offered to help him, and ended up producing and releasing Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines.

What inspired you and your wife, Stephanie, to host the annual MAPS fundraising party in New York this fall?

We appreciate the wide scope of MAPS’ mission and of course Rick Doblin’s resilience and stamina.This year was the third year we hosted the party, and I’ve also hosted some smaller networking dinners. One thing I usually tell people who come to the MAPS fundraiser is that we know New Yorkers are solicitied for so many causes to help so many people. If you add the amount of human suffering that psychedelics can alleviate—people affected by alcohol and tobacco addition, depression, anxiety, and so on—we’re talking about a lot of people. Then if you look at mystical states as an antidote to fundamentalism, it’s immeasurable. One dollar to MAPS could ultimately help billions of people.