The Last Shaman is a feverish depiction of a young man named James’s quest to cure his chronic depression by immersing himself in the Peruvian jungle culture of the hallucinogenic ceremonial drug ayahuasca.
A controversial but potentially revolutionary cure for physical and psychic ailments, ayahuasca has experienced a recent surge in popularity—and director Raz Degan’s gorgeously shot journey into the heart of this plant is a must-see for those wanting a comprehensive view on this powerful and misunderstood substance. Speaking to HIGH TIMES days before the Los Angeles premiere of the movie, Degan’s brisk Italian accent and passion for his subject illuminated the genesis of this enthralling documentary.
HT: How has James been since the end of shooting three years ago?
RD: He eventually went back to the meds. I guess he found the right… pill to handle his chemical imbalance, if we want to call it that. But the experience in the jungle definitely refined the way he views the world. And he’s much more at peace. It wasn’t just the ayahuasca itself. It was also living in a non-pressure driven society which is really connected to the earth. Detaching yourself from this virtual world of achievement has allowed James this room to connect, to be human.
The film is candid and unbiased about the dark underbelly of this culture. Early in the film we watch a money-driven shaman accidentally kill a patient during a ceremony.
Ayahuasca is not to be blamed. Ayahuasca is just a vine. Just a plant. And it’s living off the rain and sun. It means no harm. It’s a spirit plant. But what comes of it, and the business around it, and the money involved with it, is a very big part of what could actually jeopardize it, and prevent it from becoming that amazing instrument that could really affect Western society right now in a positive way.
Because of the medical aspects of taking the drug, it’s important to find the right shaman.
Yes. When you’re purging with ayahuasca, a lot of it is the emotional baggage we carry. It has nothing to do with the food we’ve eaten. People who purge the food they’re eating are going the through the first layer that the medicine offers. The medicine offers a much, much deeper purging and cleansing, which have to do with a whole another set of emotions and toxins that we carry around in us.
And the purging is… the mandatory part of the ceremony is vomiting profusely?
It happens. It’s not a guarantee that it will happen. You could feel nauseated. You could not. You could purge or you could not. There’s no set rules… but often you do purge, and often when you do purge, you feel a hell of a lot lighter and better after.
What was the moment where you were convinced of the potential power of this drug?
I had a couple sessions with my mother. And witnessing my mom’s reaction to the medicine, and how it really affected her life after sitting a few circles with me—that was the tipping point. I saw my mom getting better. I saw her coming out of her depression. Saw her getting back into her life. So that drove me to dive into this task for many years.
And how did she describe her experience?
It wasn’t easy for her. We’re talking about a woman who is very brave, very open. And I think she was 70 or 68. If you’re not aware of hallucinogens and you have issues that you have never confronted in such a direct manner—because we tend to disguise or hide a lot of our subconscious tendencies—ayahuasca brings them out and lets you relive them. So having crossed that with my mom and being next to her and seeing the light come through her, letting go of past traumas so deeply engraved in her. And she never wanted to drink again. For her it was enough.
So even a single ceremony with the drug could reset a lot of problems for the user.
The beautiful thing about the possibility of these medicines is that they will really shine light on the areas that are troublesome. A lot of times we are carrying that weight and we don’t even really realize what’s bugging us. When we go through these ceremonies, we can see them. It’s what we take out of the ceremony and bring to our real lives is how we manifest that transformation.
The Last Shaman opens Friday, May 19 in Los Angeles at Laemmie Music Hall. The film will also be available on Netflix September 1, 2017.
Keep up with all HIGH TIMES’ culture coverage here.