Everything about The Last Shaman seems impossible.
It’s one of those documentaries where all the pieces magically fell into place: the discovery of a subject with a story worth telling; a drastic step into action; and a journey with too many incredible moments to count. In other words, you couldn’t ask for a greater, more tragic, and more thought-provoking confluence of events.
The Last Shaman is about a young man named James Freeman. James seems to have everything going for him: he comes from an affluent background, goes to one of the nation’s top universities, is good looking and smart. Yet he suffers from crippling depression, feeling alone and hollow and unable to escape constant thoughts of suicide.
None of the traditional treatments work: pills, therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (which, somewhat troublingly, is presented as something far more sinister than it actually is). Eventually, he gives himself twelve months before he has a “license to kill himself.” That is, if things don’t get better in a year, he has every right to take that measure as to not have to keep going through his pain.
Eventually, while hospitalized, James reads about Peruvian shamans who use Ayahuasca, a brew made from various plants, to treat various diseases. So James, having very little use for traditional psychiatric treatments, decides to wander around Peru to find a shaman who can cure him. And this is the meat of the film: James’s journey through Peru going from shaman to shaman until he finally finds one who is the real deal.
Raz Degan has crafted an incredible story from the footage he collected following James around Peru. The events depicted are sometimes so stunning, tragic, and beautiful that it’s hard to believe that such things happened in real life, experienced by a real human consciousness. But real it is, all filtered through the eyes of James as we see his emotional progressions and regressions throughout his journey. To expound more on the events of the film would be to cheat the viewer, except to say that it has a happy and inspiring ending (as is befitting a story of self-discovery).
Degan does a wonderful job of condensing the events of ten months into an hour and twenty minutes or so. Even if there are some overwrought montages and stylizations at work, these minor faults don’t eclipse the characters and themes that make the film’s heart.
But even if The Last Shaman was a work of fiction, it would be just as remarkable. The film’s true power comes when you strip away the labels and genres assigned to films as marketing ploys. The Last Shaman transcends these terms; it is impossible to call it a “documentary,” an “adventure,” or a “drama.” Instead, its power comes from it simply being a good story. Storytellers are the great chronicler of humanities multitudes, and stories (whether they be books or plays or movies, etc.) are thousands of years of human experience — wisdom, folly, and culture — made material. Whether these stories are real or fictional is irrelevant. No matter how fantastical the fiction, it is almost without fail derived from the most vivid emotional memories. And the best ones manage to blur the social lines that, for better or worse, categorize and define us.
So while it’s possible to think of The Last Shaman as an exploration on alternative medicines, a criticism of the pharmaceutical industry, or a chronicling of a man’s battle with depression, that would be reductive. Rather, it tells the important and inspiring story of tenacious willpower and perseverance.
Or, to put it more simply, The Last Shaman comes to its viewers with a powerful message: you are not alone, and it’s possible to power through.
The film is now playing.