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In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman

Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Cine-Trance Films
Directed by Anya Bernstein
DVD, color and b&, 72 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Anthropology, Asian Studies, European Studies, Multicultural Studies

Reviewed by Dan DiLandro, E.H. Butler Library, State University of New York College at Buffalo

Date Entered: 5/4/2007

Beginning and ending with 1928 Soviet film footage of “authentic” though “decaying” Siberian shamanistic traditions, In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman follows a modern-day shaman, Valentin Khagdaev, in both his professional and personal life.

The documentary opens with voiceovers of academics warning the filmmaker, Anya Bernstein, to avoid studying the Siberian Buryat shamans – due alternately to the putative fact that there are no “real” shamans any more and the fear of the “uncontrollable magic” that they weld, respectively. Highlighting tensions and dichotomies between reality, myth, and expectation, this opening sets the tone for the entire film: the surprisingly gentle yet dismissive attitude of a local Russian Orthodox priest towards indigenous shamanistic beliefs; the banal and sensationalistic desires of tourists; the division between the shaman’s public and more personal rituals.

Citing the resurgence of traditional shamanistic beliefs after the fall of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990’s, the film follows Khagdaev in a more or less “slice of life” narrative fashion, recording the Russian and Buryat and providing English subtitles. The shaman is invested in his religion and spiritual duties, but he is also seen running for local government and performing mundane household activities. He is often invited to perform private rituals and explains, in the process, much about the Buryat cosmology. In more public, “touristy” rituals and demonstrations, Khagdaev notably excludes more sensational elements of the native belief – much to the dismay of tourists. In fact, schoolchildren are shown being somewhat combative with the shaman, responding jokingly to his questions and attitudes. In one particularly amusing scene, Western European tourists reveal their disappointment with the “performance” and wonder if they could find an authentic Buryat Siberian shaman who speaks English, French, or German.

The film’s power, though, derives from its balanced criticality of everyone involved. The narrative does not shy away from showing the shaman interrupting a public workshop to book another event on his cell phone, for instance. Too, such surprising actions create an evocative platform for the Orthodox priest’s contention that “shaman [is] showman.” Viewers of the film will, in fact, wonder why the tourists wouldn’t want to see something quite spectacular and might wonder if, like the 1928 Soviet film contended, traditional, “real” shamanism is in fact totally decayed. Alternately, viewers might be made to confront their own beliefs on shamanism, especially as it is presented in our New Age oriented culture.

Notably, the lack of anything at all terribly “spectacular” might turn off some viewers expecting shamanic rituals that we might be conditioned to expect. Also, the many scenes of Khagdaev walking and blessing objects and monuments – especially in the film’s middle sections – causes the film to drag somewhat.

Well-crafted and beautifully shot, even apparently incidental scenes in the film will provide audiences with a wealth of questions: The shaman’s remark to German tourists that he is all too familiar with the philosophy of Karl Marx serves as a platform for other notices regarding the suppression of native religions during Communism; students’ overt questioning of the Buryat cosmology implies division between dominant and suppressed cultures, but also between the younger generation and the older, the “educated” versus the “pastoral”…. Indeed, by taking no sides, as it were, and presenting events as they naturally unfold, the film presents a myriad of anthropological questions to the audience and always provides at least enough background that attentive viewers will be able to learn quite a bit not only of contemporary shamanism itself, but also about the balance between cultures and cultural expectations.

In all, In Pursuit of the Siberian Shaman is recommended for collections that concentrate in anthropology or in Asian, European and/or multicultural studies.