The documentary filmmaker Michel Negroponte was already familiar with the world of drug addiction before he embarked on I’m Dangerous with Love; his 2005 documentary Methadonia focused on the patients who frequented a methadone clinic on the Lower East Side of New York City, recovering heroin addicts living in chemical limbo as they swapped Schedule 1 substances for prescription medication. His latest project examines an alternative approach to breaking the cycle of addiction, one that is not officially endorsed or prescribed by registered health care practitioners. Ibogaine is a hallucinogen that comes from the root of a West African plant and has been used by shamans for centuries, but in the United States it is classed as a controlled substance and is therefore illegal. At the centre of Negroponte’s film is Dimitri Mugianis; a reformed addict who underwent an ibogaine treatment at an Amsterdam clinic following 20 years of substance abuse, Dimitri is now an ‘ibogaine provider’, trading chemically-induced highs for adrenaline-fuelled escapades as he works with an underground network to help other addicts kick the habit. Negroponte followed Dimitri over an extended period, becoming so involved with his subject that he tried ibogaine himself in order to fully communicate the experience and, after a treatment at a snowed-in Canadian home went wrong, travelled to Gabon with Dimitri to learn more about the hallucinogenic properties of the plant root. Laced with decidedly dark humour, I’m Dangerous with Love is both a compelling character study and an exciting excursion into an underground subculture. John Berra met with Michel Negroponte at the 2009 Sheffield DocFest, where I’m Dangerous with Love received its world premiere.
John Berra: In your opening voice-over for I’m Dangerous with Love, you state that you did not intend to undertake another drugs-related project. How did you become immersed in the ibogaine underground?
Michel Negroponte: My film Methadonia was shown at the New York Film Festival in September 2005 and then aired on HBO a month later. HBO is a fascinating channel for documentary filmmakers because it has a huge number of viewers; people who don’t normally watch documentaries will watch a non-fiction film on HBO simply because it’s there. The number of people who saw Methadonia stunned me and we received many emails, phone calls and letters. One email was from Nick, a young man from outside Chicago who had a heroin habit. He was about to try this experimental cure using an African hallucinogen, and he wanted me to film him going through the treatment. My first reaction to Nick’s email was to say that I had spent three or four years in the world of addiction, that I was still recovering emotionally and psychologically, and that I really wasn’t interested in doing a film about ibogaine, even though it sounded fascinating. But Nick wouldn’t let go. I started to do some research and quickly met many of the main characters in the ibogaine underground movement of New York City. Everyone I spoke to said, ‘You have to meet Dimitri’. When I finally did, there was something about his persona, his presence, and his intensity that made me think he could be the subject of a film. When you make these kinds of ‘present tense’ documentaries, it’s a tremendous act of faith because I knew very little about ibogaine, very little about Dimitri, and absolutely nothing about what might happen in the next several years if I committed to making a film. My underground adventure lasted four years.
JB: I’m Dangerous with Love has a tremendous narrative drive for a documentary; were you concerned when editing the film that it was too exciting and not sufficiently fact-heavy?
MN: First of all, I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing what’s happening in front of the camera than merely documenting it. Everything from the framing of a shot to the editing of a scene is important to me. I want the finished film to look intentional and precise. I want it to capture the essence of being there. Like most of my other films, I’m Dangerous with Love is character-driven. It’s portraiture. I may not include interviews with medical experts about ibogaine in the film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the information is important. While being too fact-heavy can weigh down the storytelling, I try to carefully weave information into my voice-over. It’s a stylistic choice. One of things I have found as I have made more and more films is that I shoot very little. I’m much more interested in the idea of photographing scenes. I never turn the camera on until I’ve composed a shot through the viewfinder, and I think a great deal about the photographic elements.
JB: I particularly liked your detached, darkly humorous voice-over, which recalls the writing of Philip K Dick and Douglas Coupland. Was it important for you to find the humour in this painful world of drug addiction?
MN: The subject matter of the film is so intense and dark that some lighter or comedic moments seemed necessary. In the first 10 minutes of the film there’s a tough scene of Nick vomiting in a hotel room from heroin withdrawal, and I could imagine a number of people getting up and leaving the theatre or switching the channel. So I hope the occasional humour of my voice-over helps people stay with the story.
JB: In the first half of the film, Dimitri seems to be living for the thrill of being an ibogaine provider. Were you concerned that he had substituted one addiction for another?
MN: At one point, Dimitri looks at the camera and says something like, ‘I’m addicted to chaos. Things in my life are going very smoothly. I’m not using anymore, but I need to get my hands dirty’. He’s not nine-to-five and he likes risk. I was intrigued by his bravado, but I think the film captures a change in his personality. After the terrifying event in Canada, when a young man almost dies during a treatment, Dimitri is forced to reassess what he’s doing. By the time he’s been introduced to African shamans and we’ve returned from Africa, he’s a different person.
JB: I was very impressed by Dimitri’s belief system; the bad experience in Canada did not stop him from wanting to be a part of the ibogaine network, but he realised that he needed to learn more about the process and adopt a new approach towards his work.
MN: He’s obviously an incredibly resilient guy; he’s been close to death himself on a number of occasions because of drug use. It would have surprised me if Dimitri had decided after Canada that he never wanted to do another ibogaine treatment. The trip to Gabon reinforced his belief in himself and his mission. It changed his life and took the film in a direction I couldn’t have anticipated.
JB: What was your motivation to take ibogaine yourself?
MN: Before I took ibogaine, I had seen several treatments, and yet I didn’t understand how a hallucinogen could help a drug user detox. Also, most people who take ibogaine find it difficult to describe the psychedelic journey. I wanted to see what it was like, so I asked Dimitri to give me a dose. The trip is like a dream. If you don’t have a pad and pen at your bedside and scribble notes, you may not remember anything the next morning. You have to make a real effort to put the visual and aural experience into words. I guess you could say I became a believer after I took it, and that changed the course of the film.
JB: What are the characteristics of the ibogaine underground and what distinguishes it from more conventional methods of health care?
MN: One of the things I find so intriguing is that former drug users like Dimitri created the ibogaine movement. In the film, you see several addicts go through ibogaine treatments and they return later to help Dimitri take other addicts through treatments. Drug users understand detox and they know how to be empathetic. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about conventional health providers.
JB: What is the significance of the title, I’m Dangerous with Love?
MN: It’s a line from one of Dimitri’s poems. Interestingly enough, he wrote the poem in 2002 just after undergoing the ibogaine treatment in Holland that made him stop using. He inscribed the poem in the ‘guest book’ of the woman who took him through the treatment. The poem ends with the lines, ‘I’m dangerous with love, I’m dangerous with love’. After the crisis in Canada, I thought it was an appropriate title for the film because Dimitri can be dangerous with his love. The title also has a double meaning; my subjects are people who live on the fringes, and I’ve often tested ethical and moral boundaries by filming them. Sometimes I think my passion for making documentaries makes me dangerous as well.
Interview by John Berra