Reality Gets Flexible in the Pseudo-Documentary 'Sick Birds Die Easy'

What do you conclude from a series of jungle acid trips? Needless to say, it's hazy.

Kathleen Flood

The first time I watched Sick Birds Die Easy in the spring of last year, I was confused and kind of sickened by what the director Nik Fackler had set in motion.


In essence, it's a crew of white, privileged Americans who travel to Gabon on the west coast of Africa in search of a cure for Fackler's friend and pot dealer, Ross Brockley, who is an opiate addict and conspiracy theorist—and therefore also prime protagonist material.

But Fackler knew exactly what he was doing. "Of course I saw that Ross was impossible to look away from and was a captivating personality," he said. "I was very confident on our way to Africa that we had a great mixture of Western archetypes prime for a sabotaging reality show."

After that first viewing, I asked Fackler via Facebook if was all real, and he answered with a dodge that intrigued me as much as it just confounded me: "The movie isn't real. Well it is. But it isn't. What is reality? Isn't this fucked up! We're living in a dream!" he wrote back.

Sick Birds was born when Facker's producer friend, North Sea Films' Dana Altman, approached him to make a found-footage/hybrid film in Africa. "At the time I was reading a lot of creation myths and trying to understand my own place within reality, so I felt all these concepts and questions were perfect for what is essentially a reality TV show on acid in the jungle," Fackler said over email.

Martin on the beach. Image: Sick Birds Die Easy, used with permission.

Other characters along for the ride: Sam Martin, the film's scorer, who is both an obnoxious drunk and prodigious poet whose music has a way of wrapping around your heart and getting it whiskey drunk, Sam's ethereal French Canadian girlfriend (now wife), Emily Sütterlin, the group's translator, and a small camera crew seen both in front of the camera as well as behind.

Track Premiere: "Uninformed Informants"

Originally Fackler set off to make a sort of Blair Witch Project rip-off, but once the cast and crew were in Africa, everyone began quitting. "Emily quit first, then Ross, then David [Matysiak] got malaria and then Sam quit too. So at the time I was very disappointed. I was encouraging everyone to ask big questions, be confrontational, take drugs—it is what I wanted for the film. But in the end I think we all disappointed each other," said Fackler. "I know I disappointed everyone on the crew and in Africa. I think they expected me to know exactly what I was doing, but thats not the kind of film this was. This film was a planned disaster and the only real goal was to hold on as long as we could, salvaging and filming as much of it as possible. It was probably Day 3 when the script was thrown out the window."

Ceremony. Image: Sick Birds Die Easy, used with permission.

Improvising, Fackler began filming a documentary about the culture of Bwiti and Iboga, punctuated with interviews from idiosyncratic shamans. What ensued was a mixture between inflated reality—characters playing themselves—a spiritual quest, and painfully honest sincerity, the kind that tends to bubble up when you're pushed out of your comfort zone, not to mention invading indigenous communities with cameras, cigarettes, and blatant affluence. One of the most disturbing parts, for me, is when Martin throws a stack of cash into a fire in the middle of a sacred forest in front of two local guides who are completely shocked, noting all the starving people the money could have satiated.

The crux of the film's drama and problems seemed to be rooted in Brockley's addictions and paranoia and Martin's mischief and boredom. "Ross and Sam were told to be assholes to everyone and they were, but nobody knew if they were kidding or serious," said Fackler. The tension, while taxing to live through, made for that can't-look-away, addictive attraction that's embedded in reality TV.

Ross takes the camera. Image: Sick Birds Die Easy, used with permission.

About halfway through the film, Brockley gets really paranoid about the cameras and turns one on Fackler (which made for much needed comedic relief, actually), but Brockley actually quitting the film, Fackler said, was the most surprising part of the narrative that organically presented itself.

"At the time I was happy to be rid of him, I was still trying to create this found footage film and it was obvious Ross really didn't care at all about it," Fackler said. "There is some beautiful honesty in the film from both of us. He just came up to the camera and we talked about why he is quitting and he told me, 'Nik if you want to look at me as humanity, look at me as humanity who's saving themselves.' I love that line. It's exactly what I needed to hear at the time, but it didn't really connect with me until I was in the editing room."

Exclusive clip: Ross samples his own urine.

I asked Facker if he really wanted to save Brockley, insinuating that maybe it was just a cover for having his own beautiful experience: "I was optimistic that I was going heal Ross in some way and we were going to have a complete character transformation! But that was my big lesson in creating the film, me trying to heal someone is bullshit. Who am I to tell people they need to heal?" Fackler said. "Why can't I see that I need just as much healing as everyone else?  If you focus all your attention on healing someone else (judging them on their beliefs and life choices), you're really just avoiding your own sickness.  We're all sick in some way and we all need to heal."

Image: Sick Birds Die Easy, used with permission.

Does Brockley really drink his own urine? Was the crew really tripping on LSD the whole time? Did Martin really burn hundreds of dollars in a state of drunk indifference? Can the film really be called a documentary when some of it is scripted? It's not my job to say and I don't think it really matters either way. Three viewings later, I still don't know how I really feel about the film, but I know it's stirred up my own personal compulsions and feelings on addiction, humanity, and the pursuit of happiness.

"We all are trying to escape reality and everyone uses a different substance to do it—be it religion, drugs, sex, music. Some escapes can kill you, some kill other people," Fackler said. "Iboga is especially powerful and healing because like many psychedelics, it opens up a sort of inter-dimensional portal. Each one of us is so immensely complex that we have to fucking escape! But what psychedelics do is help you to sort of escape into yourself. You are faced with yourself, all the million versions of yourself.  Some of which are very upset with you if you have been hurting yourself. You cannot hide from yourself in these worlds. You are exposed in the most profound of ways," said Fackler.

Sick Birds Die Easy is now out on VOD, iTunes, and DVD and is highly recommended for anyone searching for a mindfuck or looking to dip out of (or into) their own reality.