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in Filmmaking
on Apr 22, 2010

Premiering in the documentary competition at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, Alex Mar’s American Mystic is a poem of a film, following three young people in America who have chosen to make their spiritual practice the center of their lives. A pagan priestess who proudly defines herself as a witch, Morpheus has moved to the outskirts of rural California to create a pagan sanctuary on a small plot of land. Kublai, a Spiritualist medium, works on a farm in upstate New York but spends his off hours with his head in the hands of elderly women, learning to channel spirits. Chuck, a Lakota Sioux, barely scrapes by at his day job in the city, but he and his wife are raising their child with their ancestors’ way of life as their guide, taking long trips to the reservation to participate in the traditions that are still alive.  One of the most evocative scenes in the film is also one of the quietest – Chuck’s wife, performing a small ritual as she puts their baby to sleep, dressed in green nylon gym shorts and a logo’d t-shirt. These people are not separatists, demanding that the outside world provide them with the tools to practice their esoteric religions; they are people who will do anything, and use anything, to arrange their life in the way that they believe it should be lived.  The fulfillment they find in their practice outweighs the sometimes-painful sacrifices they make to pursue it.

Mar’s feature debut avoids talking heads and exposition in favor of wide landscapes and careful compositions that were designed to observe these lives, not explain them.

Filmmaker: It doesn’t seem at all appropriate to define your characters as “fanatics,” but there are so few words to describe deeply religious people in this culture – how would you define them?

Alex Mar: I think the word “fanatic” is certainly negative, and associated with people who have room for almost nothing else in their lives other than their faith; rigid individuals who have more or less lost their ability to reason.  That’s definitely not how I see the people featured in the film.  I actually went well out of my way, in a six-month process of traveling the country, to populate the film with individuals who were accessible, relatable, not proselytizing.  [Early on], there were months and months of thinking about how I could approach this in a way that’s was going to be really neutral and not play into anything that’s politicized or cult-y. It’s funny, because when we were in pre-production, I had so many people ask me, ‘So how’s the cult movie going?’ I had to say, ‘No, this is not a film about cults.’ I think it was really interesting to see how many people just couldn’t wrap their heads around that. It was really hard to find any discussion of real attempts at spirituality in this country, at least from my perspective.

Filmmaker: How long did it take to make the movie?

Mar: From the very beginning of casting to now it took about two and half years. We were shooting in a very strategic way; it was not a typical verite approach. Two and a half years ago, I was still working in journalism and TV, and I started the process of traveling around the country, kind of surreptitiously, trying to find the cast for the film. Midway through casting I left my job and started living full-time with different communities and traveling to different parts of the country. I was in Tennessee, and then crazy parts of California, in rural Alabama, I was all over the map.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you had the idea before you started casting. What did you set out to look for? What was the initial idea?

Mar: For as long as I can remember I’ve really been fascinated by different kinds of religious communities; how people band together because of an extremely specific belief that gives meaning to everything else in their lives. People set rules for themselves to live by, rules that to the outside can seem arbitrary, but to the members of that group, they’re the reason that you wake up in the morning, and the last thing you think of when you go to bed at night. It’s just a more intense version of what everyone’s trying to find – rules to live your life by.

Filmmaker: Were you raised religious?

Mar: I was raised kind of Catholic but also quite liberal. My mother is Spanish-Cuban, so it kind of came with the culture. From a very early age I was rather mystified by the icons and mood in the church, and all of the stories that come from the lives of the martyrs, and of course the mass is very dramatic and mysterious. At the same time, I disagreed with so much of the Catholic Church that I became really curious to find out what other people believe in, and that sort of became a runaway train. I began looking for more and more obscure groups and communities.

Filmmaker: Was it ever difficult to reconcile your own level of belief with the total commitment to spirituality by your subjects?

Mar: Well, I don’t think of myself as a non-believer.  I absolutely believe there is meaning in the universe — there’s simply too much mystery out there for me to subscribe to a view of the world as shaped entirely by random forces.  I just don’t believe in joining a religious institution, and the bureaucracy and often evil political forces at play when people get organized on a grand scale around their spiritual beliefs.  [I wanted] to show what I see as the universal connection between all these different groups. Obviously there are a lot of Christians who would say they have nothing in common with the pagans in my film, but I would say there’s a very strong connection: the sense of wanting to find some meaning as to why we’re here on the planet.

Filmmaker: The people who you chose to film aren’t separatists; they don’t seem to talk about trying to sever themselves from the non-spiritual world.  It’s interesting, because your film never really talks about the non-spiritual world.  You never talk about what the alternative is to spirituality; the alternative is just a given, and these people seem to exist in their own spiritual life-space within the outside world. I feel like a more simplistic version of the film would have a healthy number of shots of shopping malls and the suburban void, but you never go there.

Mar: It was a very conscious decision on my part not to introduce any kind of outside voices. I didn’t want to give it that sense of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand.’ I didn’t  want there to be a bunch of expert talking heads explaining to us what’s really going on in these people’s lives. I didn’t feel like I needed to spend time explaining how separate these individuals are from the rest of America. I think it’s pretty obvious, if you’re like, ‘I define myself as a witch and I live off the electricity grid in rural California,’ it’s clear that you’ve made a very bold lifestyle statement. What I hadn’t seen before was a film that created portraits of people who are practicing these exotic religions on their own terms, through their own words. [I wanted the viewer to be] immersed in whatever their daily life is, in the rituals that they practice. With the spiritualist, Kublai, it would have been really easy to show how in his area there is a strong Baptist presence, and that there’s a little bit of name-calling that goes on — there are Baptists in the Lily Dale community who think that the Spiritualists are devil worshippers. But to go down that road felt more knee-jerk journalistic to me, and this was meant to be an emotionally close experience. Also, it would have been a lot to take on to try to explain the very rich history of each of these communities to the viewer. It was a big decision to just say, ‘let’s just give the experience of what it was like to live with them.’ If the viewer is curious, they can research what a pagan is, or a spiritualist is. But I didn’t want this to become an explain-y PBS doc about Faith in America. That was actually my worst fear.

Filmmaker: I’m curious what you couldn’t film in a practical sense and also what you couldn’t film conceptually –  that is, what’s not film-able about spirituality?

Mar: One of the really big challenges of making the film was, ‘How do you visualize experience that is inside of them?’ For instance, I can’t really show Morpheus channeling a goddess. You would just see her doing a chant. It’s an extremely intense experience for her, but it doesn’t create an image that you can present on film. I suppose that as a result I tried to compensate through really rich images, and tried to use a lot of color. We really shot for very lush visuals whenever possible in order to set the tone. Technically, we obviously had to be really respectful of the rituals that people were taking part in. It was not possible to shoot a Sundance, for instance. That just is not done, it is off limits like you would not believe. It became kind of a struggle to figure out how to present that, though ultimately I think it would have been overwhelming, because it’s extremely visceral and very physical. Likewise, it took a while for Morpheus and the pagan community to let me in and show me how they practice. Really she had to be very brave, and everyone in her coven and extended pagan family had to take a leap, and say OK. I think every filmmaker who makes a documentary has some kind of this experience – you have to put yourself on the line and let the subjects of the documentary get to know you, and allow you in. I stayed with Morpheus and Shannon out in California, then I slowly started to meet their extended family. They liked the idea of collaborating.

Filmmaker: How did your idea of the film change as time went on?

Mar: I think I had very romantic, idealized ideas about what it might be like to get close to a coven, or to spend a lot of time with a community of spiritualist mediums who are channeling messages from the dead, or to be out on the Pine Ridge reservation. The reality is that people are just normal, all over the place. It was actually a really wonderful thing to see that. So much of Morpheus’ life was this really mundane stuff. She wakes up, she cooks some eggs for herself and her step-daughter, and she goes to work. Maybe that night she’ll do a ritual in her bedroom, or she’ll organize something for the next high holiday, but mainly, it’s just regular life. It was important to me that everyone in the film was a really accessible person that you could hang out with and have a conversation with. They just happen to practice a form of spirituality that most of the viewers aren’t involved in. Though in some ways it makes their lives much more difficult – Morpheus and Shannon live in a trailer, an hour away from any town, because they really believe in what they’re doing. Chuck and his family spend a huge amount of their money on gas to drive to gatherings.

Filmmaker: It really is palpable, and inspiring, that for these people, to live without spiritual practice is just an impossible alternative. Most people don’t have one at all.

Mar: You know, I went around the country, met all kinds of people who looked like soccer moms with sweatpants and Reeboks, a guy who works at Walmart as a cashier, a huge range of people who all seem like very normal Americans – and then you find out that this guy was a shaman in Arizona for twenty years, leading a community; that this woman is actually a priestess who built her own miniature stonehenge where people can have moonlit ceremonies at night. It was completely amazing. There seemed to be a decision made to take a regular life – working at Walmart, not having much money — and to decide: ‘that’s not my whole story. I’m actually connected to something meaningful and magical and full of mystery. You don’t even notice me, but it doesn’t mean that my personal life isn’t full of something much larger.’ I think that’s related to why anyone belongs to any kind of spiritual community. It makes you feel like the mundane parts of your life are actually part of a much larger mystery. You’re refusing to see yourself as small.

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