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. They 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, schools of that nature put an enormous amount of stress 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

Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)


Ain't no mountain high enough.

Ain’t no mountain high enough.

(2015) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkű Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna. Directed by Ciro Guerra

 

The journeys we undertake aren’t always the journeys we intend to make. We see ourselves as searching for something, but it isn’t always what we’re searching for that we’re destined to find.

This black and white masterpiece is the story of Karamakate, a native of the Amazonian rain forest who as a young man (Torres) removed himself from his tribe after white Imperialists, on the hunt for rubber, essentially massacred most of them. When a German scientist named Theo van Martius (Bijvoet) arrives at his hut, asking for help in locating yakruna, a plant with reputed medicinal qualities that might save him from the disease that is killing him. Karamakate, with a severe mistrust of whites, is disinclined to assist but Theo’s aide Manduca (Migue), also a native, implores the shaman Karamakate gives in.

Forty years later, an aged Karamakate (Bolivar) encounters another scientist, this one named Evan (Davis) who is searching for yakruna to gain knowledge rather than for any professed self-interest. By this age, the shaman is less aggressive in his dislike for Europeans and agrees to accompany Evan on the journey to find the plant, although he believes Evan already knows where it is – because Karamakate has begun to forget.

This is a movie that takes its cues from such disparate sources as Apocalypse Now!, Fitzcarraldo and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Joseph Conrad would most certainly have approved. The journey into the jungle is one that filmmakers and writers have been fascinated with for a long time, of civilized men venturing into places where no modern civilization exists. We’ve often seen these movies through the viewpoints of the outsiders; here, we are seeing the story of one of the natives, one disillusioned with the world that is changing into something that he realizes will destroy his people and his culture – even the eternal jungle itself.

He chose to film this in black and white, and forego the vibrant colors of the rain forest. Some might think he’s absolutely nuts for doing this, but I think it’s a brilliant move. By going black and white, he brings the film to its own essence and refuses to dazzle us and distract us with the vivid colors of the Amazon. The waters become murky and as ink; the shadows deepen and the light becomes more vivid. We are left instead to ponder the journey itself rather than the scenery.

Memory is another theme to the movie, as Karamakate grows older he is unable to interpret the glyphs on the side of his hut, or remember things like where the last yakruna is growing. There are various encounters that lead the filmmaker to posit that the cultures of the Amazon are forgetting themselves as the incursion of Europeans into the delta have driven cultural memory out in the insatiable urge for exploitation and profit.

The acting, much of it by natives of the Colombian rainforest, is natural. We never get a sense of people playing roles as much as people inhabiting them. The mesmerizing script is the story here as we see the results of colonialism, toxic to the Europeans as it was to the natives albeit not in the same way. The movie is based on the diaries of two real life explorers of roughly the same era as depicted here. The only misstep is a psychedelic sequence (the only color sequence in the film) near the end of the movie. It doesn’t really add anything and seems to be more of a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick than anything else.

This is a powerful movie, one that takes you on a journey into the heart of darkness and populates it with taciturn forest dwellers, brutal priests, broken slaves and messianic madmen. This Oscar nominee really didn’t get the kind of buzz that other movies, backed by bigger studios, received but it deserved its place at the table. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A haunting and powerful treatise. Gorgeous black and white photography. Treats natives with respect.
REASONS TO STAY: A psychedelic sequence near the end (the only color in the film) is ill-advised.
FAMILY VALUES: Some aboriginal nudity, a little bit of violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Columbia to make the final nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apocalypse Now!
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: A Space Program