The first thing that crossed my mind after watching Sick Birds Die Easy, the new film by Nik Fackler, was wondering how much of it was real and how much was made up.
“I’d say 70 percent is real, and the rest is a narrative,” said Fackler during a conference call that included two of the film’s co-stars. “It’s a mixture of both. The film starts as a documentary and then melts into a narrative and then ends as a documentary again.”
I knew none of this going into the film, which I watched via a private online stream. There are virtually no credits, just an opening shot of a huge tree (the tree of life?), followed by a montage of tribal imagery and a soft, mewing voice-over by Fackler channeling Werner Herzog:
“There are other uses for this world, secret alternate realities of perception and culture, existing in secret as I speak to you now, hidden and oppressed for thousands of years by religious and cultural conquests, bizarre and beautiful, one foot in reality, the other in legend…”
From there, the film tells the story in documentary style of a rag-tag crew sent to the belly of an African rainforest to study the effects of the root drug Iboga, which, when combined with various rituals, is said to cure addiction. Along the way they take plenty of acid and other drugs, get into arguments, drink their own urine, and listen to endless philosophical chatter by French expatriates who escaped to the jungle only to get snared by its culture and the drug itself.
There are clues throughout the first hour that the whole thing is a put-on, certain verbal cues by the film’s primary stars, local musician Sam Martin and former actor now organic farmer Ross Brockley. When, at about 45 minutes into the film, one of the jungle guides dies in his tent, the jig is up. “I would have heard about that,” I thought to myself. And then it all falls into place. The overly self-involved tone, the fictions (Martin is not a moneyed trust-fund baby), the Herzog affectation.
I’ve known Fackler since he was a teenager making music videos for Bright Eyes and Tilly and the Wall, and I’ve been watching Martin perform on stage both as a solo artist and a member of the band Capgun Coup. That knowledge made me “in on the joke,” but what about a film-goer in Duluth who has never heard of these guys? To them, it will be just another documentary. One assumes it will all become clear during the obligatory post-screening Q&A.
“I still call it a documentary,” Fackler said. “I still think it’s more real than a Michael Moore documentary. It’s just as real as a reality TV show.”
“I think it’s real in that it’s a documentary about making movies,” Brockley said during the call. “It’s a movie about making movies.”
In that context, the film also is a satire and statement about the look-at-me nature of Western culture taken to Ugly American extremes. What little charm the characters possess at the beginning of the film is worn away by the end when you realize they ultimately learn nothing on this expensive misadventure. And if that’s your take-away, the film has succeeded in its intent.
“It’s about a bunch of westerners who go to Africa to heal themselves and then fuck everything up,” Fackler said, adding that initially there was a script. “It all fell apart. The script got thrown out the window, and we all started making up all our own stuff. It’s hard to remember what’s real and what isn’t real. It’s kind of intuitive. People were quitting and getting sick. It sucked. It was horrible, but that was part of the process.”
While you may wonder which scenes were scripted, there’s no denying the illness captured on film. Almost everyone got sick at some point during the production. Soundman David Matysiak is seen passed out with an IV drip after contracting malaria. Martin suffered from some sort of virus, while Brockley got Iboga poisoning resulting in a day’s worth of vomiting. Fackler said there were days when food never arrived, which meant living off a steady diet of Clif Bars.
Then there was the bickering among cast and crew, all captured for posterity. We see and hear all of Brockley’s conspiracy theories, including his take on the Holocaust, which ultimately offended most of the crew.
“It was shocking to all of us, there was a big blowup about it,” Fackler said. “It’s was undeniably hard to take, but at the same time it’s not my job to censor the whole world. If people don’t talk about these things, then no one will come to any conclusions about them.
“I realize watching the film that none of us look good in the movie, we all look like assholes,” Fackler said. “(The film’s theme) is a serious topic and none of us are taking it seriously. But that was the point.”
To me, the film was a long, strange drug-fueled journey into a heart of darkness where you learn too little about the ancient culture depicted with its face paint and rituals and too much about the ignorant Westerners trapped inside it. Fackler said some people get it (the film won the top prize at the Poland Film Festival) — while others have walked away angry and offended. But throughout its 90 minutes, it’s never less than entertaining.
You’ll get your chance to weigh in on Sick Birds Die Easy when it premiers Feb. 11 at Film Streams, followed by a Q&A and after-party at The Slowdown featuring musical performances by Martin, Matysiak and Fackler’s band InDreama. A DVD version of the film (including a copy of Martin’s sublime soundtrack) is slated for release later this month.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.