‘The Last Shaman’: A Documentary by Raz Degan
An American suffering depression turns to ancient Peruvian spiritual medicine in Raz Degan’s doc.
A suicidal American seeks solace in the Amazon in Raz Degan’s The Last Shaman, a documentary concerning the hallucinogen of the moment, ayahuasca. Degan’s first film, the effort often suffers from hazy storytelling, but its real difficulty for many viewers will be its protagonist, who isn’t the most sympathetic proxy for Americans curious about the plant extract’s suitability to treat depression. Though ayahuasca’s current buzz ensures some measure of attention for the pic, it will be overshadowed in theaters by Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi’s much-superior Icaros: A Vision and on small screens by more journalistically rigorous accounts.
James Freeman was attending one of the Northeast’s most elite boarding schools when depression pushed him toward suicide. The high-achieving son of two doctors recalls that “by age 21, 22, I was dead.” Depression strikes the rich as well as the poor, and its sense of despair is no less real for them; yet as we watch a kid in a backward baseball cap and private-school sweatshirt talk about how he decided to “give myself 10 months” before ending it all, it may take a conscious act of generosity to invest in James’ suffering.
Most people, after all, aren’t able to take an indefinite sabbatical in Peru, hunting for the right shaman to introduce them to ayahuasca. The film assumes viewers will know a fair bit about the drug already, so those curious about how it affects the brain and body should look elsewhere. What it does communicate is the wariness a newcomer rightly has toward quack mystics who prey on tourists. Freeman settles first in Iquitos, the former home of Fitzcarraldo, a city whose status as the Peruvian Amazon’s commercial hub makes it perfect for those hoping to make a fast buck out of the jungle’s slow-unfolding secrets.
Freeman avoids the most garish con men, but is less than satisfied with the seemingly real-deal shaman he first spends time with. (A fatal incident with a patient here really deserves more thorough discussion.)
He then finds Ron [Wheelock], a “gringo shaman” who might merit a doc of his own: A high-school dropout and ex-con, he owns cockfighting birds and has some peculiar philosophies. He gives Freeman his first actual dose of the plant — but again, this shaman/patient relationship ends with too little onscreen explanation.
Finally, Freeman heads to a village buried in the jungle, hoping to find a shaman motivated not by money but the desire to help those in pain. Whether he succeeds in that or not (again, things end under a cloud, and Degan is either unable or unwilling to investigate), he does find a temporary home. Here, this seeker — whose sincerity we never doubt — finds a community eager to teach him. He begins a months-long ritual of fasting and exposing his body to the many kinds of plants locals use to treat both physical spiritual maladies. The extremity of this undertaking is conveyed in video diaries where Freeman grows more and more emaciated — and speaks of being visited, even attacked, by the spirits of plants. Degan follows this process to its end, but again, conveys little understanding about what “end” means in this situation.
Scenes attempting to convey the experience of ayahuasca-induced hallucination verge on the hokey and are not helped by sometimes EDM-like music cues. Here again, the artistry found in Icaros stands in stark contrast.