The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege (both of his parents are physicians), his parents were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, elite schools of that nature tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity