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THE LAST SHAMAN (2015) review

May 20, 2017

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written by: Raz Degan
produced by: Danny A. Abeckaser, Raz Degan, Nadav Schirman and Ariel Vromen
directed by: Raz Degan
rated:
runtime:
U.S. release date: May 12, 2017 (New York) & May 19, 2107 (L.A.)

 

I’ve been getting dizzy with documentaries lately. The sheer number of them released each month week is staggering. It really takes a unique angle or a fascinating subject to pique my interest motivate to let others know that there’s a documentary worth their time. Unfortunately, director Raz Degan’s new film, “The Last Shaman” doesn’t fall in that category. It’s premise definitely caught my interest, but it didn’t take long for that interest to feign and I soon found myself annoyed by the individual Degan follows. The only surprise in this overlong and ultimately boring documentary, is how I found myself more interesting in a healing plant from the Amazon than I was in any humans on screen.

The film follows twentysomething James Freeman from Andover, Massachusetts, who has battled a debilitating depression and has decided to give himself an ultimatum: if he doesn’t find a shaman who can save his life in 12 months, he’s going to end. Sounds ill-advised, dangerous and preposterous, if you ask me. So, how does such an ultimatum become a documentary?

 

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Enter Ayahuasca, a psychoactive concoction derived from a Amazonian plant and other ingredients that is said to induce a spiritual experience and possible heal or cure illnesses. If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you saw “Embrace of the Serpent”, a recent Colombian film that tells the story of an Amazonian Shaman named Karamakate, who assisted two scientists within a thirty year time span as trhey searched for a rare fictional plant, yakruna, which is said to have healing properties. he travels to the Amazon jungle to experience the healing properties of Ayahuasca and the world around it. I definitely saw the similarities here, although this documentary is less engaging as that Oscar-nominated film.

The impetus of “The Last Shaman” is curious and a little suspect. I certainly found myself intrigued by this young man’s quest, but it was nevertheless perplexing since the whole idea of someone with suicidal ideations crossing continents for a cure made me question just how serious he was. Call me ignorant, but to me, anyone who embarks on such a journey and has it filmed – with his estranged parents and doctors participating in talking head segments, no less – is someone who wants to live. Since he’s having it all filmed, another questions develops – who is this film for? I want to give Freeman the benefit of the doubt, but “The Last Shaman” never really shows viewers how serious or desperate his situation is.

That’s probably because of the film’s title. “The Last Shaman” becomes less about Freeman than it does about the titular shaman he’s searching for. He becomes less of a protagonist and more of a guide and while that’s interesting, it draws less attention to the reason why he started out on this journey to begin with. It becomes clear that Degan’s just as intrigued by Ayahuasca’s alleged power and its potential to save the world as viewers may be, but the tone of the film changes somewhat when we learn that a man has died during a ceremony involving the healing brew. At this point, Ayahuasca becomes something more than just a sacred element used in a ceremony and something potentially controversial.

 

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Degan follows Freeman throughout the film and includes voiceover from his subject, as well as a montage of images from his time in the Amazon, mostly in Iquitos, Peru – cutting wood, camping in the jungle, conversing with tribal men and at one point getting buried alive with a room for his nose to breath – to show us Freeman’s experiences and the lengths he will go to stay alive. We get some background into what type of treatment he’s previously received, such as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and various medications, but what remained a nagging question throughout is how he funded this trip to South America. If it’s ever explained, I didn’t pick up on it.

During this time in Peru, Freeman is seen shopping around for shamans, relying primarily on word-of-mouth – no GPS, no cell phone or communication with anyone in the States (yet, this is also being filmed, so at no point do we ever fear for the guy). He soon realizes that money of these shaman found in marketplaces are in it for the money and have likely come across Americans looking for what Freeman is looking for.

When Freeman finally takes Ayahuasca “The Last Shaman” shows the mind-bending effects of the plant. Here’s where Degan tries out schizophrenic aesthetics, combining natural and artificial noises, narrated vocals and traditional music. These moments are balanced out with more rehearsed bits from back home where Freeman is walking around his college campus or shots of his concerned mother staring out her window. The result is something akin to a film school final project and a reality show, feeling too stylized and staged for it’s own good. But this kind of manipulation falls flat when Freeman ultimately throws in the towel and goes home. He’s doing all right and he hasn’t killed himself. What did he learn from the shamans or shaman though? Some kind of newfound life worth, if I recall correctly. It’s never very clear, obviously.

When “The Last Shaman” was over with, I wound up wondering what became of Freeman’s favorite shaman, Pepe, who was ostracized from his village for not conforming to his village’s more business-related plans (they offer ayahuasca services at a price, apparently), but that’s basically where the film leaves his story, opting to follow the more predictable journey of one young white dude searching for answers.

Again, despite his struggles with acute depression, there’s every indication that here is someone who wants to live. This counteracts the ultimatum Freeman gives himself and doesn’t really consider that viewers will have a hard time connecting or believing in the young man’s plight.

 

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RATING: *1/2

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