Shaman Tour, painful but honest March 24, 2010
Dir Laetitia Merli, France, (filmed in Mongolia), 63 min
In different cultural contexts, a shaman can have different kinds of roles. He or she can be a healer, a mystic, a magician, a political leader of the community, or a visionary. In any case, for a Westerner, a shaman is usually surrounded by an aura of mystics, ancient wisdom and tradition, which seems to remain outside the capitalist systems and thus, does not know money. Laetitia Merli's film “Shaman tour” is an honest film in that respect, perhaps even too honest. The subject of this film is nothern Mongolian shamans, or rather, their tourist visitors. This is a serious look at the commercialisation of religion.
In some sense, the shaman's vocation can be seen as any other vocation in which a person sells his or her skills and asks money for it. A shaman is a doctor and deserves a reward for his services. But then comes the tourist, for whom, the mysticism that surrounds shamanism has been an attractive product to buy for decades, and the tendency seems to be growing. And of course, where there is demand, there is also supply. If there are tourists in north Mongolia, on the coast of Huvsguli lake, the shaman also moves there and starts organising touristic shaman rituals, selling souvenirs and asking 3000 tugriks for a photograph. Sitting on the back of a reindeer costs 1000 tugriks. I remember in Peru it was very popular to have a three-day jungle tour that culminated with a shamanic ritual, ayahuasca. “And then, on the very last night, after we have caught piranhas, we go to see the shaman...”, the travel salesman introduces his program, giving the last word a specially mystic emphasis, as if he were speaking about scary ghosts. And without a fuss, ancient practices give in to universal market rules. As with any commercialisation, the limits between representation and reality, between image and content seem to become blurred. One of the tourists starts wondering, after a ritual performed by the shaman Enkhetuya, the film's central character: “Did she do it really or was it … represented?”
In quite the same way, tourists who participate in a shaman tour in South America get a somewhat weird or, even worse, a terrible experience. You can never be sure, of course, whether the guide will take you to a real shaman or to a self appointed, so called 50/50 % shaman. But lovely Enkhetuya touches tenderly her money pocket in the end of the day and calls it her bank. The day's salary is 42 000 tg. Five families to feed, children to educate. Such is the reality which surrounds shaman traditions in many places around the world. And we shouldn't be angry, either with the spiritually minded tourists, or with the shamans who earn their daily living. Laetitia Merli presented both sides convincingly. The film leaves a somewhat bad aftertaste – to see the earthly realms of money so closely connected to something as intimate as peoples' beliefs. Painful, but honest.