It’s no secret that America is overmedicated. As persons seek a quick fix for their problems, drugs like Xanax have proliferated throughout society. But is there a more natural alternative? One young American searches for these answers in the jungles of Peru, embarking on the strange, spiritual journey documented in “The Last Shaman,” written and directed by Raz Degan.
“The Last Shaman” follows James Freeman, a young man with a bright future upon completing studies at the elite Phillips Academy Andover. Despite the support of his parents, however, his time at Andover is challenging, as he struggles to cope with expectations. Subsequently, he finds himself sinking into depression upon graduation, eventually losing his will to live. Suicidal thoughts run through his mind, with traditional western medicine unable to cure his illness. At this low point in his life, Freeman then decides to take an unorthodox, potentially life-changing decision. He heads south to the Amazon, hoping to find relief in a tribal plant named Ayahuasca and the shamans who wield its healing powers.
When Freeman arrives in Peru, his initial encounter with the shaman community isn’t what he expected. Instead of a haven of wise elders imparting knowledge, his trip evolves into an adventure to find “The One” among the array of quirky, suspicious characters. In doing so, the film explores the various layers of exploitation existing in this setting. While locals speak of their historical fear of colonialists from the North, they in turn have commodified their sacred Ayahuasca to profit from Westerners like Freeman.
While exploitation within this fascinating niche industry could have made a full documentary on its own, Freeman makes sure to keep the focus on himself. But despite his sympathetic condition, he isn’t the most convincing subject. Unnecessary digressions contradict the initial urgency of his mission, such as his interest in the rooster-fighting exploits of an inauthentic American shaman. Furthermore, his explanations of visions where spirits aggressively enter the body – in addition to potentially fatal side effects – do nothing to reassure skeptics who may think Ayahuasca is simply another recreational drug. As a result, the film’s message gets lost somewhere between a cautionary exposé, a human interest story and mere cultural tourism.
Admittedly, the setting does provide some Instagram-ready shots which Degan (doubling up as cinematographer) takes full advantage of. Likewise, he offers up some trippy montages during the Ayahuasca treatment sessions that further serve to immerse us in the experience. But ultimately, “The Last Shaman” falls victim to its own ambition, providing merely a brief introduction to the complex topics of spirituality, mental illness, the pharmaceutical industry and exploitation wrapped up in its subject’s intriguing quest.
“The Last Shaman” opens in select theaters May 12.