Nik Fackler’s documentary Sick Birds Die Easy pulls back a curtain of sorts in its final moments: Fackler’s droning, oneiric voiceover, which has been our guide for the last hour and a half, confesses that “like conspiracy, this film was as real as any great myth or holy scripture in our history.” To be fair, by this point, most astute viewers will have suspected that some fraction of the film’s scenes, most egregiously an onscreen death, were staged. But more than letting the audience in on some kind of concrete and definitive secret, what the film’s final moments do is reveal Fackler’s goal, the central project animating his porous conception of truth—in Sick Birds Die Easy, he’s gesturing towards a psychedelic remystification of the world, achieved with cinema as the hallucinogen of choice.
Director: Nicholas Fackler
Producers: Dana Altman, David Matysiak, Anthony Moody
Writer: Nicholas Fackler
Cinematographer: Sean Kirby
Editor: Nicholas Fackler
Music: Sam Martin
Cast: Dana Altman, Ross Brockley, Nicholas Fackler, Sam Martin, David Matysiak, Tatyo Poitevin, Emily Sutterlin
Country: Gabon, USA
Premiere: January 24, 2014 Los Angeles
US Theatrical Release: February 22, 2013
US Distributors: Gravitas Ventures
There are, however, other intoxicants at play. Sick Birds Die Easy is, on the surface, a document of Fackler and his friends’ voyage into the jungles of Gabon to experiment with iboga, a psychoactive plant purported to have shamanic properties—and, specifically, to produce radical psychic changes that effectively cure addiction.
Fackler admits, in one of his voiceover narration’s more sober moments (in every sense), that the film came about because he was offered a lot of money to shoot a film in Africa, and thought it would be fun to shoot a bunch of his friends tripping balls in the jungle. And so he assembles a drug-addled caravan of sorts, recruiting his friendly junkie weed dealer Ross, his alcoholic musician buddy Sam, Sam’s fiancée Emily, and a couple of stray technical crew members. They all fly to Gabon to try iboga, but make sure to pack several hits of acid to ensure a hallucinatory good time just in case.
Once the crew arrives, they encounter a clan of burned-out European expats practicing a modernized, New Age-skewed take on the Gabonese spiritual discipline of Bwiti, led by the charismatically cracked if slightly obtuse Frenchman TataYo. Fackler insists on pursuing a more authentic iboga ritual than he trusts TataYo to provide, and so the team head into the jungle guided by two locals. Believe it or not, it’s only at this point that things really start to unravel.
While the film is a visual record of those events and circumstances, it also bleeds willfully into the realms fiction, speculation, philosophy and theology, puncturing its own documentary sanctity with hallucinatory excursions into different characters’ minds as the crew descends into bickering and gradually splinters. The middle segment of the film, especially, is riven with improvised fictions alongside genuine scenes of the crew’s growing strife. Throughout, Fackler—simultaneously a narrator, a character, and a maker—insists on framing his project in terms of the belief that Gabon, speculated to be the true location of the Garden of Eden, marks a site for Western culture to return to its origin point and heal itself, with iboga playing a crucial catalytic role.
One of the best and smartest things about this film is how emotionally and thematically omnivorous it is, earnestly assigning validity to each of its characters’ ideas and forcibly commingling a multitude of perspectives on reality, truth and experience. This functions not as trickery but as a means of remaining agnostic about the nature of truth. It’s here that Sick Birds Die Easy runs the risk of cannibalizing its own capacity for critique—and at its ugliest, this means that the film refrains from straightforwardly passing judgment on TataYo’s causal racism, Ross’s crackpot paranoia and shockingly frank antisemitism, and indeed the entire project’s subtext of colonialism and white privilege. The latter manifests not only in the crew’s descent into Africa in search of a preordained and exoticized ideal of enlightenment (and their behavior once they get there) but also in the conduct and beliefs of TataYo’s crew of white émigrés.
Fackler is unafraid to display these blemishes, which is impressive—they’re willfully present, offered to the viewer in a ramshackle assemblage alongside all of the film’s other elements. And while the lack of answers to the questions they raise will rankle some, such tidy resolution would threaten the purity of Fackler’s approach. Taken as a whole, Sick Birds Die Easy offers a set of experiential coordinates, resistant to consensus reality, urging the audience to determine for itself how wide a chasm lies between Fackler’s skewed mythological dreams and the truth of what happened in the jungle.