The Last Shaman Image

In his search for answers James hears about shamanistic healing practices in Peru focused on the hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca. He packs up his kit and heads to Iquitos to seek a shaman to guide him.

James’s previous treatments and in fact his whole life up to this point, are presented as morally bankrupt and traditionally Western. AKA: the problem that needs solving. Degan shows us clips from pharmaceutical assembly lines pressing out pills over ominous urgent tones like cautionary scenes from Reefer Madness. Jumbled nightmare images float by to the disembodied voices of doctors and James (and in subtitles in case you’re not listening) saying “I didn’t want to take pills.”

Degan crosses the line between documentary and indoctrination in this film to such a degree that I’m not sure it’s still a documentary. In his director’s statement on the website he is an enthusiastic advocate for Ayahuasca and makes it clear that’s why he wanted to create the film. It is manipulative and presents no balancing arguments or opinions. If they had taken an obnoxious educated skeptic along to offer critical counterpoint Degan would have had a watchable film.

James winds up meeting several charlatans because the Ayahuasca practice is rotten with scam artists as a result of primarily Americans showing up for treatment practically begging to be fleeced. The con men are happy to separate fools from their money.

He found one particularly unpleasant individual stockpiling and selling something he’s says is Ayahuasca (street value, according to his reckoning $250K). He’s an American ex-con so creepy he’ll make your flesh crawl who also raises and fights gamecocks to “keep in touch with my warrior spirit.” This is probably just me but the feverish wild-eyed breathlessly intoned proverbs about the spirits of the forest and the magic of the ceremony are orders of magnitude more repulsive coming from a skeevy ex-pat white guy.

In another sweat lodge Ayahuasca ceremony James witnesses the death of a participant who reacted poorly to the drug. This does not deter him.

Eventually he meets a shaman who offers to treat him for free, a kindly well-intentioned man named Pepe.  

“The worst thing that could happen would be someone who is authentically unwell watching the film and beginning to wonder whether the cure is in the jungle”

James brings that old white-kid-seeks-magic-brown-person racism to this relationship.There’s a special kind of disrespect and ignorance that leads people to make this “noble savage” connection. It’s not malicious or intentional, James thinks he’s running away from the failings of American culture, but he winds up being the embodiment of them wandering wide-eyed through the Amazon.

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  1. Michael 'Brett' Baker says:

    yep re: “ZEN…,” a roommate handed it to me (? -’87) & after reading a few paragraphs I realized I wasn’t breathing… few yrs latter same happened when handed “Whispering Winds of Change”- Stuart Wilde… &may have had the final breath- taker at thedivinesecretgarden.com

  2. Kate says:

    Thanks for mentioning Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I hear it is a tough read but a good one (they say only about a third of readers finish it entirely).

    There is beauty in the “scientific”, or the classic, clearly. And, yes, one does not have to run to the jungles of Peru to find a sense of fulfillment once again in life. That is something I can agree with. However, I have to disagree with you in that I believe this film did something a little different in its portrayal of ayahuasca and the journey of the human spirit.

    James, a rather privileged white man lived in the city of Boston known for its “exceptional” psychiatric facilities. Even his own father in the film acknowledged this fact and for some reason its “treatments” and facilities STILL failed his own son. Should we anticipate a clearly romantic view on life as the cure to all of our issues? Absolutely not. Should we acknowledge that there is a pressure to live up to standards of “success” that tend to put a lot of people in this society under forms of great distress? Yes. And can we learn from the simplicity of people who live with next to nothing materially in comparison to those of the West and instead closer to the lungs of our Earth–whom tend to feel a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose without years of academia behind their belt?

    Those are the questions one must ponder. Art is important. And, regardless if Degans tended to be “too romantic” with this film, at least he portrayed the extreme on the opposite side of spectrum of what we worship here in the West.

  3. Noah Weafs says:

    Your review is exactly the problem with western society. No one needs pills for anything, period. Showing the jungle life is exactly how those people have survived and thrived for centuries without the bullshit we put upon each other here.

    The worst thing a sick oerson could do is read your review and NOT go into the jungle for help. You say he’s sick but nearly everyone working 9 to 5 then watching 4 hours of tv a day is SICK. But take the pills and you’ll feel good while watching the mindless television.

    The film was skeptical enough as if you watch the DMT documentary (the element in Ayahuasca) then you hear the more far out theories about literally leaving your body and encountering entities across the universe. What James experience was so realistic and rational and simple for an open mind to accept that there is no need to a critique questioning everything that happens in the film.

    Furthermore it’s also sickening that such review can alter ones approach to the movie even after seeing it. I wish I could unread your review and bask more in the glory of the film.

    Sincerely,
    Future Ayahuasca User (and celebrity)

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