Director Raz Degan dives into the world of ayahuasca in his debut documentary “The Last Shaman,” exploring the possibilities of this hallucinogenic brew for mental health treatment. Degan follows James Freeman, a young American tormented by suicidal thoughts and depression. When traditional medicine, including pharmaceuticals and electroconvulsive therapy, offers no relief, James sets off for Peru to experiment with alternative forms of spiritual treatment.
He works with several shamans, including an American ex-con named Ron, who makes his money cock-fighting and offers ayahuasca ceremonies on the side. But James truly connects with Pepe, a shaman from a remote village. It may be the medicinal plants, the isolation, or village life, but James transforms, physically and mentally, rewiring his brain and liberating himself from the intense pressures to define his personal success through stringent Western ideology.
The film is a fascinating and sometimes terrifying introduction to ayahuasca. Surreal sequences mimicking the hallucinogenic experiences during the ceremonies are unnecessary and pale in comparison to the real transformation we witness. It ultimately presents a Utopian, if oversimplified, view of the drug as a cure for mental illness. While James does come out sunnier on the other side, it’s clearly a complex and deeply involved process that one film can’t fully address.
‘The Last Shaman’
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills