The film Shock to Awe: A Journey of Hope and Transformation opens on a ceremony taking place at night around a firepit. A dozen seemingly ordinary Americans are seated. There are tinctures on a table. A liquid is poured into small disposable cups. A man walks around the circle, caressing a Tibetan singing bowl.

“I’m going to have each person come up,” he says. “Consume the medicine, then sit back down, okay?”

The camera focuses on two men as they cradle the cups in their hands and drink it. The film suddenly cuts to shots of combat and gunfire in a desert terrain, an explosion in front of military vehicles. Then we’re back at the ceremony.

“I want to wish everyone a safe and beautiful journey.”

It’s an inner journey into the spiritual, psychedelic and healing effects of an entheogenic drink called ayahuasca, brewed and used by indigenous people in the Amazon basin, and making its way through American spiritual subcultures as a gateway to self realization.

The film follows two war veterans who seek to heal their combat damage – a debilitating mix of anger, anxiety, numbness and depression – through the use of ayahuasca. They are Mike Cooley, who was an Army Airborne MP in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Matt Kah, who was Army light infantry in Afghanistan.

The camera accompanies Mike as he drives to his college classes. He gets anxious and angry when people tailgate him on his commute because for him it conjures an ambush or a car bomb. He can’t focus on his studies because his brain is replaying scenes from war. He and his wife Brooke, also a vet suffering from PTSD, smoke cannabis and use therapy tools to cope.

“What the fuck’s the mission?” Mike says of his civilian life. “I spent my formative years learning how to kill people.”

Our other veteran, Matt, tries to wake up his two boys in the morning before his wife takes over. In another room of his house he tells the camera that Christmas is hard for him: “The first time I attempted to kill myself was Dec. 24, 2009.”

He says he couldn’t feel intimacy, couldn’t feel anything, particularly for his family. He tells the camera harrowing stories about his deployment, the helplessness he felt as part of the most powerful military on the planet. He testifies that war robs people of humanity: “I buried a part of my soul in Afghanistan, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back.”

The film cuts in chaotic war footage into mundane shots of civilian life, showing the schism that veterans find hard to reconcile. Mike and Matt have been through a gauntlet of VA treatments, therapies and pharmaceuticals, trying to escape the worst of the statistics – addiction, veteran suicides, broken marriages.

That drives them to the Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth in Orlando, Florida, where the film first opens. Having backtracked and closed the first loop of the storyline, it sets off from that point again, on through the four ceremonies that make up the unorthodox ayahuasca healing ritual.

There is little art or style to the film – it’s not that kind of piece – it’s just a straight path through the story. There are sobering facts and stats along the way, and there is also not much scrutiny of the film’s advocacy of psychedelics. But that’s another film.

Director Luc Cote, of Montreal, Canada, has made documentaries about PTSD in the Canadian army, and the interrogation of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo. This film comes here courtesy of the Monterey Psychedelic Society, and its one-night screening includes a talk by Dr. Allison Feduccia, clinical data scientist at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and director of Psychedelic Support.

The mainstreaming of cannabis is opening the doors to experimentation with substances for therapy. We see that in the film. Brooke tries MDMA therapy on camera. Mike says he replaced a profusion of pills with cannabis. But most prominent, the film is about ayahuasca.

The camera switches to a low-light lens to capture Mike and Matt on a ayahuasca night trip – they call it a “journey.” They seemingly lose some control, get sick, feel euphoric, see hallucinations. It’s an intense passage.

“We’re changing,” Mike says of his journey. “This is helping us to change. Hope’s not as strong as surrender. Just letting it be. Whatever it is.”

These agents are powerful but they aren’t magic. The film maturely suggests that with guidance, study and good intentions, psychedelics and entheogens can help people – not to escape their pain and problems, but to see them, confront them, even embrace and live with them – on their way to becoming more whole.

SHOCK TO AWE plays 7:30pm Wednesday, Jan. 16, at Century Cinemas (Cinemark 13), Del Monte Center, Monterey. $12 (tickets must be purchased in advance online at 275-0736.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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