“American Mystic is a documentary about three twenty-somethings, each a member of a fringe religious community, who have separated themselves from mainstream America in order to live immersed in their faiths. The film intertwines very intimate, apolitical portraits of individuals in depressed areas of the country trying to lead more extraordinary, mystical lives: Kublai, a Spiritualist in the former revivalist district of upstate New York; Chuck, a Lakota sundancer in the badlands of South Dakota; and Morpheus, a pagan priestess living off the grid in old mining country in southern California.”
“I actually spent time with Pagans in Montana, Tennessee, and other areas of California (as opposed to where Morpheus lives) before I even connected with Morpheus. I also had plenty of phone and email chats with Pagans in other states along the way, and a lot of people were lovely, really forthcoming with tips and thoughts on how to be faithfully represent Pagan practice. You’ve talked about this yourself, Jason — the ways in which the Internet has made it easier for Pagans to interact and find each other. The Internet definitely made some aspects of my search easier. But at the end of the day, when someone is still in the “broom closet” in an area of the country that’s hostile to what locals think being a “witch” involves, you need to build a relationship in person. I met a wonderful witch who lived in the hills of Tennessee who initially had me meet her at a truck stop diner to make sure that I was who I claimed to be. Eventually, I spent time at her home, and she really wanted to tell her story — but the fear of being outted in such a hostile environment was too much for her. She was afraid of threats to her or her family, or of losing her job. And she had good reason to be cautious.
When I finally met with Morpheus, in her khakis (nothing like her ritual gear!) after her day job, we clicked pretty quickly. And when once my producer and I stayed with her and her husband Shannon at Stone City, we all had a hunch that this would be a great fit. There was also the plus of being able to tell the story of this Pagan sanctuary they were in the earlier stages of building up on their land.”
The new documentary “American Mystic”, which had its premiere at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, is a stunning directorial debut from filmmaker Alex Mar. Languid and dreamlike in tone, it immerses you into the lives of three modern American mystics, a Spiritualist, a Lakota Sundancer, and Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna. It may be the best documentary involving modern Pagans that this generation has seen. The subjects are approached on their own terms, and they speak in their own voice. There is no omniscient narrator, or outside experts, all context is provided by the lush cinematography and candid glimpses into the lives of these individuals. Because of this, there is a engaging intimacy, a sense that you are truly getting to know these modern mystics, instead of merely studying them.
I’ve recently had the distinct pleasure to conduct a short interview with Alex Mar about the journey towards making this documentary, how she selected her subjects, and her feelings about modern Pagans.
“American Mystic” is your first feature film. What was the journey the brought you towards tackling this subject matter? Why a film about modern-day mystics?
I’m a bit of a diehard New Yorker — liberal, feminist, wary of any club that would have me — but at the same time I was raised by a Cuban mother whose beliefs are a dizzying mix I would call “liberated Catholic.” So from a young age I was taught to immerse myself in the mystery and ritual that you find in Catholic ceremonies while simultaneously questioning everything. As I got older, I began to see the mysteries and stories of Catholicism as very exotic, and wonder how it is that people come to subscribe to their belief systems. What makes one religion or spiritual practice more relatable than another? Clearly the culture you’re personally raised within has a lot to do with that.
As far as “mystics” — I was working within the media for a long time, and still do occasionally. And I was really tired of the way in which faith in America has been portrayed. It really seems as if there are two angles you can come from: we’re either talking about the evangelical Christian movement, in which case the story is all about politics; or we’re investigating some kind of cult, in which case it’s a freak show. I wanted to make a documentary that would say something else about spiritual practice in America, separate from the mainstream. Because there is obviously so much going on in this country, so many belief systems, that go beyond the Big Three religions. To write America off as a wall-to-wall Christian stronghold is simply wrong.
In the film you follow the lives of a Pagan Witch priestess, a Spiritualist medium in training, and a Lakota Sioux Sundancer, why these three lives? Was it an organic process, or did you have some preconceived notions about who you’d like to profile?
I think all filmmakers who’ve worked in the doc genre will tell you that casting is critical, and very tricky. You want to find the right balance of subjects for a film, while at the same time having very little idea of how their lives will play out once you start filming. For me, the biggest challenge was inherent to the topic I’d chosen: I had to find people who were really dedicated to a non-mainstream spiritual practice, brave enough to talk about it publicly, articulate about experiences that are sometimes beyond words, and (on top of that!) great on camera. That’s not an easy combination to pull off. That’s why the casting process took about six months, all told, and took me all over the country, to some very hard-to-reach places.
As far as which traditions I wanted to include, I left that pretty loose. I knew I was very curious about Spiritualism, had been for a long time, so this was a good opportunity to explore that. And I also had a hunch that I wanted to develop a better understanding of what it means to be a “witch” today — the word is still so loaded. I remember the first few times I met Pagans, I really tiptoed around saying the word “witch” for fear that I might be committing some kind of faux pas! Of course, I learned very quickly that there are so many stripes of Pagan practice that there isn’t just one correct interpretation. That’s another thing — it was essential to me to stick with the stories from each individual’s perspective, and not get too much grander than that. So Morpheus, the priestess featured in the film, was sharing her own experiences — but neither she nor I would have claimed that we were speaking for all of Pagan-dom. That would have been impossible.
As a follow-up to the previous question, you’ve said in other interviews that you come from a Catholic-Cuban background. Did you consider including a Santeria practitioner, or a Catholic mystic in the documentary?
My mother’s family is originally from the north of Spain, so there wasn’t any Santeria practice in our background — that wouldn’t have been a personal angle, if that had been what I was searching for. And more importantly, as I said, I knew I wanted to steer clear of giving even more coverage to the mainstream. So, for me, that precluded any form of Christianity. In addition, I was trying to include traditions that were “made in America” to some degree. Most Native American practices have been around longer than everything else that’s practiced in this country; Spiritualism was founded in upstate New York in the 1840s; and perhaps you could say that Pagan practice in America involves a great deal of re-invention and room to shift your allegiances among specific traditions. In that sense, Paganism seems pretty all-American to me.
Was it easy getting your subjects to open their lives to you? The portraits are surprisingly intimiate, particularly of Chuck, the Lakota Sundancer. I suspect that building trust was a large part of your work on this project.
Building relationships is a big part of making a documentary, as any doc filmmaker can tell you. And it’s especially challenging when you’re asking people you barely know to open up to you, on-camera, about something as personal as their spiritual beliefs. It’s a topic that I think we’re trained to find embarrassing to talk about in this country — unless you’re an evangelical, on the one hand, or a resident of the states of California or New Mexico! (I’m exaggerating, but there’s some truth to that.) In the end, it was a combination of time spent with the subjects and a willingness on my part to open up in return — I did my best to open up to any questions about my own background.
Turning to Morpheus, and your work with Pagans, how did you two come into contact? Was she the first Pagan you approached for this documentary? What was the process there?
I actually spent time with Pagans in Montana, Tennessee, and other areas of California (as opposed to where Morpheus lives) before I even connected with Morpheus. I also had plenty of phone and email chats with Pagans in other states along the way, and a lot of people were lovely, really forthcoming with tips and thoughts on how to be faithfully represent Pagan practice. You’ve talked about this yourself, Jason — the ways in which the Internet has made it easier for Pagans to interact and find each other. The Internet definitely made some aspects of my search easier. But at the end of the day, when someone is still in the “broom closet” in an area of the country that’s hostile to what locals think being a “witch” involves, you need to build a relationship in person. I met a wonderful witch who lived in the hills of Tennessee who initially had me meet her at a truck stop diner to make sure that I was who I claimed to be. Eventually, I spent time at her home, and she really wanted to tell her story — but the fear of being outted in such a hostile environment was too much for her. She was afraid of threats to her or her family, or of losing her job. And she had good reason to be cautious.
When I finally met with Morpheus, in her khakis (nothing like her ritual gear!) after her day job, we clicked pretty quickly. And when once my producer and I stayed with her and her husband Shannon at Stone City, we all had a hunch that this would be a great fit. There was also the plus of being able to tell the story of this Pagan sanctuary they were in the earlier stages of building up on their land.
Could you tell us a little bit about your time working with Morpheus, Shannon, and their community? How would you describe the working relationship? Any interesting stories to share?
Morpheus and Shannon were great — real collaborators. I think that Morpheus performs, as a dancer, helped her to see this as a sort of art project she was taking on, and that gave our relationship an interesting angle. And once the two of them were on board, they helped me to make the other members of their community feel more comfortable when they visited and the cameras were rolling. We also never showed anyone’s face on-camera unless they had actively given their permission, so once people understood that, it was easier to decide to take part. And I think it also helped that I really did want to take part in ritual whenever it was possible, when I wouldn’t be ruining the shot! Samhain was a particularly moving experience at Stone City, and one I won’t forget. There was definitely some kind of powerful energy in the room, with maybe 60 people present calling on their loved ones who had passed.
Having spent some time working and socializing with modern Pagans, what is your perspective of our communities? Advantages? Drawbacks?
Maybe a downside would be something you find in all religious communities: the people who are more invested in their community for the lifestyle than anything much deeper. The Pagan equivalent of going to your megachurch for the X-Box and the Krispy Kreme donuts. But, of course, the Pagan version is racier than that!
Much more importantly, though, I loved the open attitude I found so many Pagans had. There was a lot of tolerance and genuine curiosity about people who practice differently. I really appreciated that. Also, the idea that you’re allowed to evolve and change aspects of your practice as you grow — that was something new for me.
There will be a special screening of “American Mystic” at the 2011 PantheaCon in San Jose, California, followed by a panel discussion moderated by me, and featuring Alex Mar, Morpheus, and members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary. There will also be an opportunity to purchase DVD copies of the film. A wider DVD release of the documentary will follow shortly after this event.
Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a new series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!
“Save the date for the long-awaited West Coast premiere of American Mystic! The film will be coming to us on the weekend before Samhain, with a one-night special screening Saturday October 23, 9:30 pm at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater. After-party to follow. More details will be coming on that, so mark your calendars for this not-to-be-missed event, and we’ll post the details here!”
The Wild Hunt will have an interview with director Alex Mar of Empire 8 Productions, a full review of the documentary, and more details about the DVD release in the near future. What I can say at this point is that this is a powerful film, and if you’re in the San Francisco area you shouldn’t miss this opportunity to see it on the big screen.
“It was a powerful day,” said McCollum, “a time signifying hope and equality for all people, World Peace, and a reverence for our planet.” Following the International Day of Peace, Rev. McCollum participated in 4 additional days of meetings as a member of the Executive Board of Directors of the United Nations NGO, Children of the Earth.
“The final deadline of September 22, 2010 came and went without any last-minute attempts by Rachel Bevilacqua’s former boyfriend to appeal the custody decision. This means that the custody case is now officially CLOSED IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK. Any further attempts to disrupt Rachel’s relationship with her son would have to be filed in the state of Georgia. This means that he would most likely have to SPEND MONEY to do so. In other words: After four years of hell, IT’S OVER.”
Keep in mind that this “victory” came at the cost of thousands of dollars, personal bankruptcy, and a still-standing ban on exposing her son to any Subgenius materials. I recommend reading the exhaustive run-down of this case at Modemac’s The High Weirdness Project: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Cases like this are indicative of the struggles faced by parents who are adherents to minority religions. As more parents use religion as a “wedge” in custody battles, Reverend Magdalen’s case threatens to become a mere statistic in a larger trend of parents having to defend their faith in court.
“As leaves fall, so do Druids. This issue is focused on the life and career of Isaac Bonewits (1949-2010) who died on August 12. You can separate his life into period into four quarters. First growing up a disgruntled but curious Catholic 1949-1965. Then he was most active in the RDNA from 1968-1983 and then became the founder and first Archdruid of ADF from 1983-1996. The last quarter of his Druid career was a focus on his family, the internet growth of Druidry, dealing with health problems, publishing books and the nurturing of the various projects from his youth. As with his mentor Robert Larson’s passing in 2005 and Norman Nelson in 2009, we are devoting this issue to providing you more resources in understanding the scope of Isaac’s Druidical influence.”
You can download part one, here, and part two, here. This is vital reading for anyone wanting to understand the evolution of Druidry in America, and Isaac Bonewit’s place in that history.
Welcoming PNC-Heartland: In a final note, I’d like a welcome another new addition to the Pagan Newswire Collective’s bureau’s project, PNC-Heartland, serving Kansas, Western Missouri, and surrounding areas.
“The PNC-Heartland Bureau was launched on 23 September 2010 by two Kansas City and one Wichita Pagan who are committed to gathering Pagan news in the Kansas and western Missouri region. They have established a blog at http://pncheartland.wordpress.com. If you have questions, news or would like to be part of this effort, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Yet another forward movement in creating a news infrastructure for the Pagan community, I wish them the best of luck. Stay tuned for announcements regarding the launch of PNC-Main’s web site and our official “coming out” at Pantheacon.
“When you’re making a film about faith, I think it’s only fair to put your own family beliefs and your own questions on the line when approaching your subjects. Most people would only share with me about their own practices once they had heard about my own hopes and doubts about what greater meaning might be out there. For the record, I don’t subscribe to any religious institution, but I do believe that we’re here for some mysterious, larger purpose.” – Alex Mar
I urge all Pagans and fellow travelers in the Albuquerque area to attend “American Mystic”, it even happens the day before the Albuquerque Pagan Pride Day, so the timing couldn’t be better! In addition, on the same day as “American Mystic”, the Albuquerque Film Festival is also featuring the documentary “The Shaman & Ayahuasca” by filmmaker Michael Wiese, which sounds like a great double-feature. Lets spread the word, and show that there is a market for smart, respectful, films that feature modern Pagans.
“The proposal, from Commissioners Edwin Reyes, Bridget Gainer and Gregg Goslin, includes a swath of spirituality. It would affect mediumship, palmistry, card reading, astrology, seership, “crafty science,” and fortune telling that might take place as gatherings, circles and seances. “This was something that was highlighted to say there is a variety of different things out there that could be covered by certain deceptive practices,” Gainer says. She says the measure was suggested by the sheriff’s department, and that more people dealing with a tough economy might be hoodwinked by frauds posing as spiritual leaders.”
First off, there are already laws against fraud and deceptive business practices in Illinois, and I can’t see how this new ordinance would have protected a recent high-profile Chicago-area victim of the old-as-the-hills “cursed money” scam. Further, how will this ordinance, if passed, be enforced, and who gets to decide what’s fraud? If you pay for a reading at a party, can you call the cops the next day? If you drop $20 when the local Pagan group passes the hat and you later have buyers remorse, can you press charges? The language is so broad (“circles”, “gatherings”), that it easily includes any Pagan ritual where any sort of money changes hands. Since this proposed ordinance doesn’t seem to ban charging for “spiritual services” per-se, how will it actually prevent the most outrageous instances of blatant grifting?
“That’s an interesting question. First off, let me say that I’m not advocating any one spiritual path over another. But that said, I know WitchVox to be a useful site for pagans or people who are pagan-curious to connect locally. I was told over and over again how much easier it’s become for people who are curious about different forms of witchcraft to find mentors now that the Internet exists. The Wild Hunt is a widely read pagan blog about the latest politics and culture that’s relevant to the pagan community. And there are major conventions a few times a year where young witches, warlocks, Druids, you name it, get together and mix and network and learn new techniques and dance to gothic metal bands.”
“Acclaimed Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that Lord Ganesh and Goddess Kali were highly revered in Hinduism and such absurd depiction of them with no scriptural backing was hurtful to the devotees. Ganesh and Kali were meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be thrown around loosely in reimagined versions for dramatic effects in TV series.”
“My point is just that this episode, in attempting to answer that “what about other gods?” question, made things infinitely worse than if we’d just been left wondering. Now we’re left thinking that somehow Christian deities are more powerful than any other deities in the world. Dean goes so far as to call them “just monsters.” Which A) doesn’t really fit the show’s premise, which is that Christianity is one mythological system among many; and B) makes it seem that Supernatural buys into the idea that Christianity is somehow the “best” or “most powerful” mythological system out there. Thumbs down on that one.”
Many have defended Supernatural as an “equal opportunity offender”, but I’m not sure that’s true. While Christian themes are treated lightly and irreverently at times, it still acknowledges and reinforces the inherent supreme power of the Christian mythos. It has also been careful to steer clear of the third rail of secular pop-culture fantasy portrayals of Christianity by not making Jesus (or even God for that matter) a character. Supernatural, in other words, doesn’t mind being flip about Hinduism, Taoism, Vodou, or Paganism, but won’t court real controversy by having Jesus (or the Virgin Mary) show up and throw down.
“I met with different covens in different parts of the country, and one of the challenges with the pagan element in the film is I needed to find someone brave enough to say, okay, not only am I a witch, and to say that on camera, but I have this coven, I have this group that I practice with, and everyone associated with her had to be brave enough to say, okay, we’re comfortable with this.
In California and maybe in New York, it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to say that you’re pagan, but obviously being a witch is a big deal in this country. I met with a woman who I thought was so wonderful in Tennessee, and she would have loved to have shared her story but she was terrified. You know, she had seen people lose their jobs, and actually had a friend whose children were taking away from her through child welfare… It was really, I think, all told, six months of going around the country.”
Mar’s obvious sympathy for her subjects, and her willingness to view the world from their perspective, makes me very hopeful that this will be one of the best documentary treatments of modern Paganism by an outsider. I look forward to the opportunity to see this film, and I wish it every success at the Tribeca festival. I urge you to read the entire interview, and if you’re in New York, to go see the documentary.
Directed and co-produced by Alex Mar of Empire 8 Productions, the film features Pagan priestess Morpheus Ravenna, who, along with her husband Shannon, operates the Stone City Pagan Sanctuary in California’s Diablo Range, just outside the San Francisco Bay Area. If this trailer is any indication of the overall quality, it may be one of the best documentaries featuring modern Paganism in recent memory.
Morpheus Ravenna is planning to be in New York for the premiere, so hopefully we’ll hear about her experiences regarding the film, and get a sense of how the audience reacted. I’ll try to keep you posted regarding screenings, the eventual DVD release, and hopefully an interview with director Alex Mar regarding the project.
“Set against a vivid backdrop of American rural landscapes, Alex Mar’s meditative documentary artfully weaves together the stories of three young Americans exploring alternative religion: a pagan priestess in California mining country, a Spiritualist in upstate New York, and a Native American father and sundancer in South Dakota, all yearning for fulfilling spirituality in disparate but often strikingly similar ways.”
“Stone City was founded by Morpheus and Shannon on their land in Santa Clara County, California, beginning in 2002. Our purpose is to provide gathering space and facilities for Pagan community events, and permanent sacred spaces dedicated to the Old Gods. Stone City does not serve one single tradition or subset of the community exclusively – our intention is to be available to multiple traditions as a place for gathering, worship and support. Our community of friends and supporters is wonderfully diverse, representing people with backgrounds and practices including witches from many traditions (Feri, Gardnerian, Reclaiming, California Eclectic, and more), Druids, Thelemites, practitioners of Celtic and Norse faiths, Kemetics, members of NROOGD and CAW, shamans and animists, Buddhists, and others. We are dedicated to fostering ties between traditions and strength within the Pagan community.”
I had the distinct pleasure of not only meeting Morpheus and Shannon at this year’s Pantheacon, but to also talk at some length with director Alex Mar concerning the project (during the Pandemonaeon concert of all places). I was left with the impression that Mar, while not a Pagan, seemed genuinely fascinated with our interlocking communities, and clearly respected the work being done by Ravenna and the Stone City Pagan Sanctuary. I came away from our interactions very encouraged that this will be a worthy documentary that respects the beliefs and aspirations of its subjects (a rare thing).
As this project gets closer to its premiere, I’m hoping to showcase a trailer for the documentary as soon as it’s made available. I’m also hoping to conduct an interview with Alex Mar about the documentary for this blog at some point in the near future. I think it’s very exciting that a documentary featuring the accomplishments of modern Pagans in such a positive way is going to be getting a lot of attention from film-lovers, industry professionals, and the press. You can be sure I’ll be keeping you up-to-date concerning this film.