Despite the advances of western medicine over the past hundred years or so, there’s still a sense of mystery when it comes to the human mind. There are no simple answers as to the roots of depression and the dark cloud it raises over the psyche. In the new film from director Raz Degan, The Last Shaman, the director follows James Freeman, a young man suffering from an intense case of depression, as he travels to Peru in search of shaman that may use their passed down knowledge and rituals to help cure his intense depression. The Last Shaman is often a fascinating portrait of an afflicted soul searching for answers but sometimes loses its way with its flashy presentation and complete abdication as to issues of class.
James Freeman is an educated young man that, in his own words, says he feels dead inside. This once bubbling young man has been stricken with a case of depression so strong that he feels there are no answers for what’s afflicting him. He’s been in and out of psychiatric hospitals with suicidal thoughts and anti-depressants haven’t been yielding any tangible results. With no other options, James travels to Peru in search of shaman that employ Ayahuasca, a natural remedy used by the tribes, with the hope of curing his incurable depression.
In his first stop, James is slowly weening off his anti-depressants before he can take the Ayahuasca. The combination of substances can be deadly, as James soon finds out when a young man at the first shaman’s village dies overnight due to a mixture of his medication and the Ayahuasca. This is a shocking moment in the movie and one that allows Raz Degan to make his movie about much more than simply natural remedies versus western medicine. As with any substance, careful considerations must be taken and the recklessness of the first shaman that James visits leaves him searching for another healer in the jungle.
It’s a while before James is able to find the shaman that is able to help him and proceeds to begin a six-month process of Ayahuasca and tribal remedies that finally leave the young man with a certain sense of self that had been lost. But there’s also a political aspect to the tribal elements and the growth of Ayahuasca. James’ shaman is expelled from his village and he unable to thank and say goodbye to the shaman when it is his time to leave.
The Last Shaman is a strongly constructed piece of documentary filmmaking for the most part, especially ramping up when the hallucinatory drug is ingested. Here is where The Last Shaman looks like a flashback to ‘60s acid films, color and sound swirling across the screen in a frenzy of images rapidly spliced together. It’s a flashy presentation and little else, a cinematic device that Degan leans on too heavily as the film wears on.
One aspect of The Last Shaman that the film simply doesn’t address are the class issues in James Freeman’s search for a cure. He’s a young man from an affluent family, obviously, but the film fails to address this issue. James is incredibly lucky to be able to take six months traversing Peru in search of a cure for his deep depression, a luxury that is simply unavailable to countless people with a similar affliction. It’s an aspect of James’ story that should get a bit more attention as the film is in a precarious situation of endorsing a tribal remedy that is all but unavailable to most.
The Last Shaman works best when James is bearing the struggles that are going on within his mind, conveying a brutal honesty that is heartbreaking. For the most part, Raz Degan explores the topic of depression and the healing properties of Ayahuasca with a balance that presents its benefits and dangers.