American Mystic for months. Alex Mar's documentary on the deep and unorthodox spirituality of three different Americans had generated a lot of buzz in the Pagan community because one of those featured was a Pagan. I was so eager for this film I feared it would disappoint. It did not.
Kublai is studying to be a medium and healer in the Spiritualist church. Chuck is a young Lakota man whose family has reclaimed traditional Lakota ways. Morpheus is a priestess and teacher in the American-founded Feri Witchcraft tradition. The director does not give us an in-depth, scholarly introduction to their beliefs but instead invites us to sit with them companionably. We visit with these three people and experience their energy, their passion and their yearning.
First let me say the film is well done. The images, the sound, and the pacing all flow smoothly. I think making a film must be similar to planning and leading a ritual. All elements have to flow together and you must keep a careful eye on the energy. At the end of a good film you should feel altered in some way, just as when you participate in a good ritual. That's one reason I began this column, because movies are myths and myths are holy (unless they are Caddyshack). Being a documentary, American Mystic still embraces the mythic in the landscapes, the stories and rituals that the film presents.
There has been ongoing conversation in religious communities about the "rise of the nones" as more and more people describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. While I am certain that a significant number of these people simply do not find religion relevant to their lives, many I believe are actually seeking something more and something different. The big question is: What is this something more? What is this something different? I think American Mystic provides one answer to this question.
All three of the people who are featured in American Mystic believe in having a deep, committed connection to something outside of themselves, something related to their ancestors and the past. Particularly in the cases of Chuck and Morpheus, they are willing to make sacrifices in order to maintain a connection that would be considered unthinkable by most Americans, and to commit not only themselves but their families as well. These are the things that we say that people no longer want. That we must make religion easy; that religion must adapt to modern lifestyles and must give way to new ideas. While there are certainly times where this is true, that trope does not comfortably fit the people we hear speak in American Mystic.
The story of Chuck particularly impressed me. I am vaguely aware that there are First Nations people who are trying to reclaim their own lost traditions, some whose traditions are as lost and murky as native European traditions. To actually hear someone speak of going back to those traditions and claim them as their birthright generations after they were outlawed and uncommon in communities long converted to Abrahamic faiths is truly inspirational. His connection to his family and community gives me hope. I felt honored that he shared his story with us through this film.
Kublai is the person I felt I had the most in common with. He is the youngest person featured and his searching and hunger for spiritual depth and connection reminds me of the teenager I was, and the spark of yearning that still lives within me. While I felt disconnected from his values and some of his statements, I had a lot of compassion for his yearning. Yearning for something better, higher, more authentic in young people is something to encourage and support.
I was surprised to find that my reaction to Morpheus was very different. Being Pagan myself, her path held less mystique for me, yet I appreciated her unique vision, commitment and style. My tradition and practice is not Feri but I have a lot of respect for that tradition, and I felt she represented that tradition well. In typical Pagan fashion, I felt myself wanting to add disclaimers to some of her statements, as we tend to have this feeling that any Pagan who speaks publicly should speak for all of Pagandom, and not simply from their own heart. I relaxed though, and let that go, and settled in to "visit" with her and hear her story. I am proud that she shared her story in such an authentic fashion and I admire her work. I am grateful she was part of this documentary.