Alex Mar has produced American Mystic, a beautiful and most unusual film, one I hope receives many viewers, for many
will be the better off for having seen it. In her film Mar describes the lives of spiritually committed people living outside the American spiritual mainstream. She does so sensitively and entirely in their own words. Her film revolves around three “American Mystics,” Kubai, a
man deeply involved in America’s Spiritualist tradition, Chuck, who practices traditional Lakota religion whose culminating
ritual is the Sun Dance, and Morpheus a Witch.
Three things impressed me as
particularly well done in her film.
First, she remains faithful to the people whose stories she tells. There is never an attempt at making her
subjects exotic or weird. In fact,
one thing which stands out is their very ordinariness in the midst of the
extraordinary. They have each
sought and found a spiritual path in accordance with their own heart and
calling. Kublai, Chuck, Morpheus and the community around them walk their talk,
but do so quietly. The viewer gets a sense of what these communities are like,
and again, what stands out is the smooth integration of these spiritual paths
with ordinary relationships and life.
If these Americans differ from the
American Dream, it is because they seek it in their relation to Spirit in the
ways it has come to them, and in integrating that relationship with their daily
life. Kublai and Chuck live what on the surface appear to be ordinary lives,
which if they stand out at all do so because they are materially poor. Morpheus and her partner live on their
own land in northern California, but it is wild rough land that is not good for
agriculture, land where they lived at first in a trailer without power as she
pursued her dream of creating a Pagan sanctuary. All willingly set aside the more commonly sought signs of
success: a good financial income and lots of stuff but would all agree with Chuck’s
comment: “Family life, Spiritual life. I’m pretty rich.”
Second, all felt “different” all
their lives from the secular materialist society around them. They had powerful youthful experiences
that only later proved significant in focusing them on spiritual priorities. Each had early lives that gave them
some toe hold on alternative views.
Kublai’s family is also spiritualist, Chuck was initially separated from
traditional Lakota practice, but with the revival of Native American religion
he was able to attend a sweat in Indiana, far from the reservation, that set
him on his path. Morpheus had been
raised by parents who had themselves always walked to their own drummer. But
even so it required strength to turn away from modernity’s blandishments. As Morpheus the Witch observed, “We are
in many ways limited only by our courage.” All these people are people of courage and integrity.
Third is the film’s subtle message
that spirit is everywhere. In the
land itself, and just beyond a veil that is sometimes thinner than at others,
but never impenetrable if the seeker will only look. The lush green fields and woods of upstate New York, vast
spaces of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and digger pine and chaparral
covered hills of inland northern California are very different places, but all
breath spirit, and Mar’s film captures this. This centeredness also comes through in the warm relations
within the spiritual communities, of these people and their teachers, and in
the tasks of daily life. All of
this is for the most part marvelously understated (though a little less
emphasis on Sun Dance scars would have strengthened her story, I think.)
The film does not say much about
each spiritual tradition. Nor does
it show a Sun Dance or the more ecstatic forms of spiritual trance. Sun Dances are never filmed. Period. And the bits of Pagan ritual we see are not over done with
weirdness. For the most part
everything comes across as both Sacred and ordinary. Spiritual voyeurs will be
disappointed and the skeptic will see nothing that attempts to shake their
I think this is one of the film’s
Our experiences, the experiences
that make us who we are, and willing to pay a sometimes considerable price for
our practices, are inner experiences. A deity does not show up on film. A vision is just that, a vision. Healing energy can sometimes be seen by
the human eye, but again, does not show up on film.
Talking at length about these inner
experiences to me is usually a mistake.
When we describe them we distance ourselves from them, and so I think it
is unwise to describe them too much.
As for the listener, if they are not personal friends (and even
sometimes when they are) to my mind such accounts usually come across as tall
tales or signs of nuttiness or attempts to appear more-spiritual-than-Thou. Not that this is the teller’s intent,
but for the listener it is hard not to be wishful or skeptical or envious. And too much focus on what looks
strange to outsiders is simply cheap thrills. Thrills that inevitably mislead by making us seem far
stranger to the ignorant than we are.
I think for those of us who walk
these and similar paths, American Mystic will leave a warmer appreciation for
how many ways there are by which good people can live a spiritually rich life,
a life that focuses on their own relationship with the Sacred, and leaves
similar respect to everyone else. I particularly liked the way that towards the
film’s end the voices of her subjects began to bleed over into visuals of the
others. It demonstrated very
nicely how these paths, so different on the surface, were deeply complementary.
I have had some degree of
acquaintance with all three paths. Obviously I am a Witch myself, but I helped
build a Sun Dance arbor on the Crow Reservation in Montana and been blessed with
the opportunity to do sweats there as well as make offerings at the Medicine
Wheel high in the Bighorns. For
six years I worked weekly and more often within a Brazilian variant of
Spiritualism, in some ways different but fascinatingly similar. That work was as hard as getting a
Ph.D. from Berkeley, though very different. I think Mar captures all three paths, at least to the degree
I can comment knowledgeably, and does so very sensitively and with great respect
for all concerned.
I think Pagans will benefit from
Alex Mar’s artistry and I hope her efforts receive much support from within our
An interesting interview with Mar about
American Mystic can be found at Film Maker Magazine.