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.