A new doc about ayahuasca trips on its own banality.
One of the many vexing qualities of the psychedelic experience is the gaping asymmetry between its inner profundity and outer banality. Indeed it is among the only guaranteed effects of ingesting psychedelics that one will (1) have a profound experience and (2) say something silly about it. This problem looms heavily over The Last Shaman, a documentary about a young man’s journey to South America to cure his depression with ayahuasca. Filled with hallucinatory editing, vague jabs at consumerism and diatribes about the Western medical establishment, the film feels regrettably like the ravings of a 16 year old who just tried mushrooms at Coachella.
But herein lies the paradox. Obnoxious though the tone of these invectives may be, many of them are nonetheless true — or at least true enough to merit consideration. The careerism and spiritual bankruptcy of some quarters of the West may indeed damage mental health. And there is simply no denying the fact that the “insights” one can have on psychedelics are often personally transformative, enduring far beyond the length of the trip. For this and many other reasons, the renewed scientific interest in psychedelic research should be celebrated. If it is the intention of director Raz Degan and his subject, James Freeman, to bolster and expand this research, they have my support.
Unfortunately, for reasons both budgetary and stylistic, The Last Shaman is anything but a careful case for the study and use of psychedelics. Its scope is confined to Freeman’s immediate loved ones and the various characters he meets on his trip to South America, one of whom is the titular “last shaman.” (I wonder whether Degan, at the time of naming the film, had seen the classic Chappelle’s Show sketch in which comedian Paul Mooney skewers Hollywood for making The Mexican starring Brad Pitt and The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. Not only is Degan’s “last shaman” not the primary subject of the film, but he’s not even the last shaman. Rather, he’s merely the last one James encounters on his journey.)
As the film alludes, ayahuasca shamanism is a booming business, due in no small part to the rise of “ayahuasca tourism” and the evangelism of Silicon Valley’s psychedelic elite. It’s not at all clear whether Degan aims to denounce this trend or promote it. On a charitable reading, The Last Shaman explores the tension between ayahuasca’s enormous utility and the increasingly corrupted circumstances under which it is used. The film’s villains are a series of less than responsible and less than “authentic” shamans who, we’re meant to assume, have tainted the plant’s spiritual purity by succumbing to the profit motive. But it’s difficult not to view The Last Shaman as a symptom of the very illness it ostensibly condemns.
What outcome are the filmmakers seeking? Do they really believe that the future of psychiatric treatment should involve haphazard trips to South America to partake of superstitious rituals and ingest powerful drugs under patently unsafe conditions? Perhaps they’re after a narrower aim: to tell one young man’s redemptive personal story. But then why the contrived subplot pitting good shaman against bad? Indeed, why make the trip to South America at all? Someone as resourceful and fortunate as Freeman could almost certainly have found a reputable shaman in, say, the Bay Area. Of course, this would have been illegal — and worse, uncinematic.
All nonfiction filmmakers face a tension between preserving the “truthfulness” of their stories and shaping them into cohesive, engaging narratives. Because documentaries rarely feature disclaimers indicating which sequences are candid and which are staged, it falls to critics to gauge whether the balance has been struck responsibly. This challenge becomes compounded when, as is the case in The Last Shaman, the film involves a willing subject who consents to whatever representation or misrepresentation the filmmaker is trying to convey. To be clear, it seems all but certain that Freeman was in fact depressed and that his experiences with ayahuasca aided his recovery. It’s far less certain that what we see in the film represents the honest unfolding of this process.
Every effort is made, for instance, to frame Freeman as a near caricature of the “all-American boy.” This means highlighting the young man’s enrollment at an elite East Coast prep school and dwelling ponderously on shots of him looking miserable in the school’s empty dining hall. All the while he sports a sweatshirt for an elite liberal arts college and a hat for a different elite East Coast prep school, as if one isn’t enough to drive home his all-Americanism. Of course, if this is in fact how Freeman voluntarily adorned himself, my mockery of someone in the grip of depression should seem perfectly monstrous. As it stands, these appear to be strokes of ham-fisted direction.
On at least one score, The Last Shaman rings true: it certainly mirrors a set of impressions one can accrue from a psychedelic trip. Many of the film’s faults, including the absence of a real thesis and the ill-conceived disgust with civil society, are likewise the errors one is apt to discover in the scribblings of one’s acid journal. It is the task of scientific researchers, as well as every earnest psychonaut, to separate the wheat of genuine wisdom from the chaff of psychedelic delusion. Much wisdom is surely there to be found, and Freeman may well have found it. But viewers of The Last Shaman are more likely to come away with a headache or a hangover.