Amplify #14 Anya Oleksiuk - Filmmaker and Co-Director of the Psychedelic Society UK
In this edition of Amplify, WOOP interviews Anya Oleksiuk, a transdisciplinary filmmaker and Co-Director of the Psychedelic Society UK. Anya has just finished her documentary The Psychedelic Renaissance. It brings a nuanced portrayal of the psychedelic movement, capturing healers, and renewed research, but also the perils of mainstreaming and commodifying the use of psychedelics.
In this interview, Anya tells us everything about the documentary, her personal story with psychedelics, the role of women in psychedelics, her work with the UK Psychedelic Society, and the psychedelic societies in the Netherlands and Poland, and the importance of spreading education. Let’s check it out!
*This interview was conducted and transcribed by Marlies van Exter and Larae Malooly and condensed for clarity.
WOOP: The main focus of your work as a filmmaker is supporting the psychedelic movement and creating video content that encourages a new perspective of psychedelic use for individual well-being and collective use. When did you first become involved in psychedelics and why have you chosen to work in this field?
Anya: I got involved in psychedelics 18 years ago, when I was 18 years old. I was a dark teenager, listening to black and death metal, worshipping everything dark. Then my lovely friends gave me LSD. They said, “Let’s go for a walk in the forest and try this.” And I was like, “Oh! Life is beautiful! Why am I so miserable all the time?”
But as an adult, I was still struggling with life, even though I had a good partner and a good job. I thought this was just how everybody felt until I went to a therapist and discovered I was suffering from clinical depression. I tried yoga, mindfulness, healing techniques, therapy. This was helping initially but every time I got stuck at some point again. Then I reminded myself of that first trip and how it made me feel. And I thought, maybe I just need that.
I went for a beautiful walk with a friend while on LSD. Because we didn’t understand much about dosage, we had taken 250 micrograms without realizing how strong it would be. We had this mystical experience in a public park, pondering the universe and receiving messages of universal love and beauty. I then received a message that I could take responsibility for my own life and for my own mental health. That message restarted me on a healing journey. Since then, I’ve done more work with psychedelics, went on a retreat, and met a community of like-minded people who helped me to contextualize those insights. This put me on a journey of self-love. It gave me the green light to let go of certain things and start looking after myself.
In the beginning, this journey inspired me to inspire others, to shout this information from the rooftops. But today, I am a bit more balanced and skeptical.
I was a filmmaker already who had been looking for the right, meaningful and personal subject for years. I always knew it would be about mental health, but it couldn’t be just another “I’m depressed, and there’s no escape” type of movie. The moment psychedelics helped me, I knew this was the subject.
I attended the Breaking Convention [one of the largest psychedelics conferences in the world]. I saw all the researchers and the community there and thought that, if I didn’t have a clue that all this research was happening, and I’m into it, then many people must not know. I felt I needed to spread this message. That’s when I decided to make a documentary about it.
WOOP: Can you tell us about the documentary?
Anya: The Psychedelic Renaissance is a portrayal of the psychedelic movement. It is an independent film by independent people. I am the creator, director, producer, and even an occasional camera person. It is co-directed by Mareesa Stertz, a great director who has done a lot of work for Vice and Gaia TV. She documented the psychedelic renaissance movement going mainstream in San Francisco five years ago.
I have been documenting the European side: all the researchers, people who run events and things like Cyberdelics. My first day of shooting was in the Netherlands, with a well-known ayahuasca expert; Arno Adelaars. From that point, I started interviewing this collective of people to show how the renaissance is progressing.
We finished filming when the coronavirus pandemic began and we have 80 hours of footage. Amazing interviews, events, talks — from the Netherlands, London, Prague, Vienna, America — and we are now entering the editing phase.
We have now become official partners with MAPs, and our MAPs donation website has been up. People who want to support the documentary can contribute on the MAPs website. The money will help us pay for editing, animation, and sound design so we can finish and share the documentary to watch for free. Because our mission is to offer free education.
WOOP: What is the main message of the film?
Anya: There are two messages. The first is: these therapeutic substances are a great tool for psychotherapy, self-growth, collective growth, and for healing problems like ecological crises.
But the second message is: we need to be very careful. We got over-excited. We need to look at side-effects, the bigger picture, the shadow-side of mainstreaming, commercialization, commodification, and the effect on indigenous communities. But also negative side effects on mental health, such as retraumatization, spiritual bypassing, narcissism and more. At this stage, a lot of people think psychedelics are going to save the world. That they are a magic pill. But it’s important to understand that it’s not like that. They are a great tool, but they are not the solution.
WOOP: The film’s team consists of all women. Was that a choice or was that a coincidence?
Anya: That was definitely a choice. The film industry, as well as the psychedelic industry, is so male-dominated. You see it when you look at speakers, at conferences. It’s changing, but very slowly. So, it was deliberate. When we allowed the first man to join the team, it was a massive decision. The whole team had to agree first.
WOOP: What do you think of female representation in the psychedelic industry? What can you do to encourage more women to work in this field?
Anya: I remember hearing Friedericke Fischer talk at the Breaking Convention. She inspired me so much that I thought: "I need to spread the word about such women. Now."
To encourage more women in this field, I have been hosting an ongoing webinar series on women in psychedelics. We invite female researchers, therapists, or anyone in the psychedelic field to speak about their work. We organize all-female panels, which then attract a lot of new, young women. When you put more women on the stage, more women will want to take the stage.
My team that runs science events is all female as well. I believe in mentoring younger women and helping them to get there. Being a role model is the best we can do to inspire others and build them up.
WOOP: Do you think women can use psychedelics for healing, self-liberation, and empowerment?
Anya: I have found beauty in psychedelic women's circles, both taking medicine together in a female group of support, sisterhood, and non-competition, but also integrating those experiences together. As women, we share similar problems. We experience sexism and expectations to be smart, beautiful, and slim and so on. We can talk through that together and discuss our journeys. That forms a sisterhood, especially for women who didn't have that female role model in the form of a mother or sister. They have to rewrite the bad conditioning they had from other people and build this new connection in their minds.
WOOP: What are your observations on public opinion about psychedelics?
Anya: We are officially mainstream. The biggest proof of this is that Robin Carhart-Harris talked about psychedelics at the last economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. Even Michael Pollan’s book [How to Change Your Mind] has been published in Saudi Arabia. And there was an article in the Pakistan New Herald about psychedelics. It’s everywhere now.
Three years ago, it was a different story. At that time, I was the warrior bringing messages about psychedelics and telling everyone they’re great and they can help. But I see my role has also changed. Now I’m saying, “wait, hold on. Let’s step into it slowly and carefully.”
A lot of people are ignorant of the possible harms of psychedelics. On our Facebook community, I see these kinds of competitions to have ego death, take bigger dosages, and have more mystical experiences. I find it worrying.
WOOP: You are Co-Director of the Psychedelic Society UK, wanting to reinstate the public understanding of — and access to — psychedelics in the UK and beyond. Can you share more about that work?
Anya: My documentary has led me to join the Psychedelic Society UK. Steven Reid, the founder, contacted me two years ago because they needed a filmmaker on board. I accepted and I’m still at it, spreading education about psychedelics. It’s producing the events that teach people about these substances and harm reduction while maximizing their benefits. It’s introducing techniques for integrating psychedelic experiences: meditation, yoga, dancing, and bodywork, for example.
I’ve also been working on an extensive harm reduction website, which will go live soon. Here, people can find information on the side effects of every substance. What to mix it with and what not, what to expect, and where to go when there is a crisis.
WOOP: You are also associated with the Psychedelic Society in the Netherlands and in Poland. Why is it so important to have these societies?
Anya: We see that the most important factor for people’s recovery is community. If you don’t have a community, you are going to slip back into your bad habits. So we need a space for the community to gather, whether it is a virtual space or a real space.
My best friend, Marta, is the founder of the Dutch Psychedelic Society and I have been involved with her for a while. I was doing some video production, graphic design, giving advice, collaborating on events together, promoting their content and retreats. They are also heavily involved in The Psychedelic Renaissance and we did an event in the Netherlands together to promote the documentary.
With the Polish Psychedelic Society, I have an ongoing relationship. They’re quite new, and I offer advice about setting up, what kind of speakers you can invite, etcetera. At some point, I will also go to Poland to talk about a psychedelic society’s organizational side. Poland has a very conservative government and a big stigma when it comes to psychedelics. Their amazing team of psychologists and neuroscientists have a hard nut to chew there because they need to be super professional. No new age stuff there, it has to be very medical.
WOOP: Is there anything more you would like to share with us? Anya: Just keep watching our psychedelic science events on the Psychedelic Society UK website, because we invite some amazing speakers all the time. We go deep into really important subjects, so I invite everyone to follow us.
If you would like to know more about Anya’s work, you can go to her websites The Psychedelics Renaissance, The Psychedelic Society UK, and Triptika Studios. You can also follow more of her work on The Psychedelic RenaissanceTwitter, Anya Oleksiuk's Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Do you feel like supporting The Psychedelic Renaissance? You can make a donation here.