The last shaman (movie review)

The Last Shaman is a documentary that follows a young man, in his early 20’s, who is suffering from severe depression. He has reached a point in his diagnosis that labels him as “incurable” and the only way out, that he can see, is suicide. But in a last-ditch effort, he has decided to try the healing efforts of a shaman. See the trailer here:

You can watch the full movie on Netflix streaming.

Born into affluence to two physicians who work at Mass General Hospital in Boston, James, the young man, has had all of the opportunities that many of us would yearn for. He goes to the best private school (Phillips Academy in Andover, MA) and one of the most expensive private colleges (Middlebury College, in Middlebury, VT). James is handsome, smart and driven to succeed. 

But something is drastically wrong. James falls into a depression that robs him of his joy of living, his emotions, and an ability to connect. What later becomes apparent in the documentary, is that he was given the message by both parents that his value as a person is defined by outward-looking success. Success seen as your academic achievement, your relationships with the opposite sex, your grades and talent and financial wealth. With both parents being physicians, it is no wonder that this young man has had to live up to an impossibly high standard. 

The goal of the documentary seems to be to offer an alternative to using the recommended therapies and prescriptions as provided by the mental health industry. It is also a commentary on the commercialism of healing practices. As we know, the mental health industry is far from perfect. Doctors readily admit, there is so much more to know about the human brain and we’re only just now beginning to scratch the surface. Prescription therapy, behavioral therapy and even shock-therapy have not cured James. He is actually worse off, he says, than before he began taking the drugs and therapies. He claims the drugs have altered him irreparably. 

Within this playing field, James feels lost and unsupported. A sensitive young man, who truly cares and wants to be the best person he can be, doing all his parents have asked him to do, he feels let down. He is able to finally articulate that after he has undergone some shamanic healing.

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James goes to Peru, to where shamans are a part of village culture but whose practice is now turning into a form of commercialized tourism. There is much money to be made by tourists coming there to be healed. Like anywhere else in the world, there are charlatans and scammers. But there are also a few authentic healers who don’t heal for money, but because it’s what they do. 

The first shaman James finds seems authentic, but during his time there, a man dies while under the shaman’s watch. No recompense seems to be demanded by the family and this shaman continues to work. In fact, he builds a new compound to grow his practice. James leaves to find another shaman. This time he finds an American who has been living in Peru for many years. This shaman doesn’t hide his background as a high school dropout, an ex-convict, and a user of illegal drugs. He likes to engage in weekend “cock fights,” a local custom, in which roosters fight each other to the death. But as a shaman, he’s apparently healing visitors. 

James decides to trust this American shaman — the man speaks English and James thinks that will help him to better understand what's going on — and goes through a cleansing process. It becomes the first experience he has with the ritualistic herbal drink, called ayahuasca. This drug creates hallucinations and causes vomiting. Because James was on anti-depressants, he must first wean himself off those drugs before he can begin. We see the shaman chanting, blowing smoke, drinking something in James’ presence. After the experience, James seems lighter, more in touch with himself, but then he’s told by the shaman that he won’t be able to continue to help heal James, because he’s working on a new building project. So James leaves.

On his way to his third and last shaman (hence, the title of the movie), James begins to open up about his feelings. He’s asked if he’s happy now and gets furious with the question. He explains that all he wants is to feel. To be human again. He is angry when he thinks  and talks about his father. The pressure put on him, even if it was out of love, caused James to lose sight of who he really is, what makes him James.

The last shaman, Pepe, is a true village shaman who practices his healing for free. He agrees to take on James, and for over 100 days, James goes through a complete immersion into the cure, which involves purging, drinking lots of the ayahuasca, and smoking some kind of weed (it’s not clear if this is marijuana or some other kind of drug). At the end of the 100 or so days, it’s time for James to be “reborn.” The shaman places a shroud around James' body that he can breathe through, digs a shallow grave in the jungle and puts James in that hole. He is covered with dirt, all except his nose, so he can continue to breathe. He is left in the ground for 7 hours.

When James comes out, he seems disoriented. But you begin to see a more whole person emerge. He is able to differentiate what he had gone through, his trials in his earlier life, and to look upon those who steered him so far from himself with compassion and forgiveness. He sees the connection that we all have with nature, with plants, with mother Earth. He seems to be filled with peace.

He does not claim to be cured, but says he is healing. This is a journey that he will be on for a while. He plays soccer with the children in the village, a sport he used to play all the time when he was younger, but gave up to focus on his grades. 

A twist occurs at that point that makes the story a bit difficult to fully believe. The shaman Pepe is forced out of the village when an NGO, that is intent on setting up tourism based on commercializing shamanic healing and ayahuasca, discovers that Pepe is offering these to tourists for free. He is seen as too much competition for other shamans and must leave and give up his practice. We later see Pepe working at a mechanic’s shop in the city, although James claims that no one knows where Pepe has gone. Whether done for special affect, or to sell us on the title of the movie, it’s not clear. It seems odd that the one healer who actually helped James is the one ostracized, while the other two men with dubious motives, are allowed to continue their work as shamans, as if nothing is wrong.

The final scenes are with James who has returned to college in Middlebury, attempting to patch things up with his parents, and working on himself as he tries to retain his connection to nature through gardening. Maybe, he says, he’ll use his knowledge of medicinal plants to heal others, following somewhat in his parents’ footsteps as a doctor.

my perspective

I enjoyed the movie, despite the strange special effects the director used to show the hallucinations that James goes through. I could also forgive the somewhat forced ending. But I would have loved to have learned more about what James got out of the experience. We see him smiling more, we see him eating dinner with this parents, we see him back in college, but what was the lesson he learned? What is the “aha!” to take away from this movie?

I would’ve been fine if this was a rant against the mental health establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, but then the story of James might get lost in that angle. I would have preferred, I think, to have learned more about the experience from James’ point of view. What does he think can be done about depression now that he’s gone through that unique experience? Are there other examples of people who have had severe depression and were “cured?” Can a person be cured of depression? There are so many other questions that remain unanswered. 

The other piece of the puzzle that remains unclear is: what exactly is a shaman’s role and how does a shaman's work help people restore their mental health? Shamanic styles of healing go back to ancient Africa, thousands of years ago. If you look up the definition of shamanism, you learn that a shaman is someone who opens up the two worlds, the materialistic and the spiritual worlds, so that you can find divine allies, helpers or guides that manifest healing and restore your imbalances. Shamans believe we are all one, all connected, and that you dream up the world.

I do think this movie is a good starting off point for a unique conversation. 

What is depression?

The fact that we don’t really understand what causes depression, what cures depression, or even if there is a cure for it, is still a huge issue. As a coach, I have learned a lot about psychology and spirituality. With the limited amount of knowledge I have, what stands out for me is that when you lose your connection to yourself, your true nature, the part of you that is your soul, your spirit, it feels like depression. I have no idea if clinical depression is the same thing. 

What is clear to me is that mental health professionals and coaches look at humans in opposite ways. The coach sees a human as containing all the internal tools and elements a human needs to be whole and healthy, and only needs assistance to access those tools and elements within themselves, therefor they believe you treat the whole person — while a doctor sees a human with poor mental health as flawed, as “missing” essential tools or elements that create a healthy and whole person, so they believe you only treat the symptom or the area that is afflicted. This is why doctors prescribe medications that are meant to provide you with some of those missing elements. 

So it makes me wonder, when a person sees themselves as “flawed” or “broken,” how likely are they going to feel the confidence they need to be the best version of themselves that they can be? How affective is giving medication to a depressed person, when they are essentially told they need that medicine to feel “normal?" And if the meds don't make you feel normal, but worse, what does that say about you? That's exactly where James was lead, and to the brink of suicide.

Certainly biology plays a part in depression, but I also know that you can trigger your own chemicals, through mindfulness exercises and other behavioral practices. Smiling actually releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins and dopamine.

Is it possible that if James had had someone like a coach to work him through his struggles before he got to severe depression, he would’ve been able to stay whole and healthy, without falling into depression? What is depression really, if not a dysfunctional manifestation of self-hatred? If the coach can open up your perspective and help you see things that you were unable to see about yourself because of that lost connection to soul, and can help you to accept and even love all parts of you, could depression be avoided?

Yes, there is so much we don’t know.