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Faces of the Festival: Alex Mar

Journalist-turned-director Alex Mar talks to us about her documentary, American Mystic, and humanity's search for meaning.


Alex Mar, a Harvard-educated avant garde filmmaker turned journalist, came up with the title for her first feature-length film, the documentary American Mystic, over drinks. "You know that really corny story of Godard [and] how he decided to do Breathless, it was like he wrote an idea on a matchbook or something and it became the film? I actually came up with the title of American Mystic over drinks one night, really frustrated, like, how could I not have an idea for a feature film? And so with just literally the title on a napkin, I quit my job [laughs] and we started the process of finding the right cast for the film," she told With that, she quit her job and, along with her production partner Nicholas Shumaker, went on a hunt for the subjects of this unique documentary.

American Mystic is about three very different people seeking answers to life's big questions in their own unique ways; specifically, it's a look at alternative spirituality and lifestyles in America on the macro level. Through the words and experiences of Chuck, a Lakota Sioux, Morpheus, a pagan living off the grid with her partner Shannon, and Kublai, a Spiritualist in his mid-twenties, Mar explores the human search for meaning in a way that's both illuminating and insightful for viewers of any philosophical outlook. What personally drew you to the idea? The phrase itself, and then the idea. Did you already have, even before you came up with the title, an interest in alternative spirituality?


Alex Mar:
I think I'm just one of those people who's a little bit tweaked. I have just for the longest time been really fascinated with off the grid communities and unusual belief systems, I guess you could call them. Part of it's that my mother is Cuban, and she raised me a weird combination of Catholic feminist liberal whatever, which is just a recipe for complete confusion. But what I did get from my Catholic background was this total fascination with all of the mysterious ritual and the icons and the martyrs and lighting candles and the robes—it's really High Mass dramatic, mysterious stuff, especially when you're a young girl, so I think that was a big part of it... As I got older, I started looking into, well, what do other people believe in? And no matter how strange or exotic different religious communities can seem, I think they all are part of a continuum of [people asking], why are we here? Is there any meaning to your life?


Some people talk about, let's say, the Mormons, for an example. Some people find the Mormons to be a kind of unusual or esoteric group, but I mean, Catholics, [they're] a lot more of a mainstream group, but you're basically [told] that you eat the body of Christ. I mean, this sounds completely bananas, if you want to look at it that way... To me, it was definitely just an extension of finding these exotic moments in something as mainstream as Catholicism. Like, what else is out there, and what does it mean to be so devoted? And I think the other part of it too is just being a New Yorker, I really feel like everyone I ever grew up with, my friends here or in LA or London, it's really fashionable to be some kind of intellectual atheist liberal type, but it doesn't actually answer any questions, not to believe in anything. Everyone wants to believe in something. So the people in this film, even if I can't relate to everything they do or practice, I totally respect their desire for some kind of mystery in their lives. Yeah, I had a discussion with a friend about a similar thing, that we're all searching for something and no one wants to admit it.


AM: It's funny, but I think one of the reasons why I really wanted to make this film was I just could not think of something out there that was comparable. I hadn't seen any film out there that's like this... When you see religion in the media or in film, it's either heavily politicized or it's kind of the freak show cult aspect. And I think the reason for that is to talk about anything in the middle is embarrassing to a lot of people, because if you really do believe in something, you're just really putting yourself out there in this incredibly vulnerable way. And we had to really approach it carefully because to shoot [someone] performing some kind of ritual or séance or what have you, it can look really embarrassing on camera. There's this fine line where these people were really brave and put themselves out there, and I think it's partly because it's a desire that's so impractical, that you can't really explain it away; you can't act cool about it. It's very much about [feeling] like [you] have some kind of importance in the world, detached from money or careerism or anything, and that's... raw...


It's a hard thing to put on film, it really, really is... I put a lot of emphasis on their voices and their very particular experiences, and a lot of the imagery in the film we shot so that it would seem mysterious and it would have a look that was a little closer to how they felt when they were lighting a candle and slicing a pomegranate for a pagan ritual. If you shoot something like that so it looks completely realistic, it doesn't get any closer to what that person's trying to live. I understand you did a lot of background work interviewing people from different religions. Can you talk about that, and also how you decided to focus on the three people you chose?


You cannot underestimate the amount of work and travel and searching that went in to casting the film. It was really such a huge challenge... I wanted to avoid mainstream groups so viewers wouldn't come in with a whole lot of baggage and tons of assumptions. And also, if you're showing something that seems a little more exotic to the average viewer, there's just a lot more potential for kind of interesting visual situations and a little bit of originality. I wanted to shoot scenarios and people who hadn't had the opportunity to kind of tell their story. But then part of the trick was how do you find people in their 20s who actually are really devout, one, and then two, how do you find people who are accessible enough to the average non-believing viewer, right? These had to be people who could draw you in. You could imagine being friends with them or relating to them on a lot of different levels; you could imagine going shopping with them or whatever, having lunch. So that, as the movie led you down this path with them, when Morpheus is doing a ritual in a Stonehenge [setting], you roll with it.


And it was really hard to find people who would set that tone, but also achieving the right balance was really, really hard. I knew that I wanted to have at least one woman represented; I knew that I wanted to choose religions that were relatively open-minded. I didn't want to kind of mistakenly promote a group that I thought was negative or prejudiced against a race or a sexuality or anything, and that in and of itself is a huge challenge. [laughs] But Spiritualism and the New Pagan movement and also a lot of Native American spiritual groups are very open and accepting of other kinds of groups, so that was a big deal.


In terms of the fun part of traveling, I went to rural Alabama, rural Tennessee; I spent a lot of time with some serpent-handlers down there. I spent time with this kind of like neo-Jesus movement group in California where everyone dressed in an Amish style and woke up at the crack of dawn to milk their goats and do construction work, and... I lived with them. I was covered. I couldn't wear makeup. Sort of like, play by everyone's rules as you go along.


I met with different covens in different parts of the country, and one of the challenges with the pagan element in the film is I needed to find someone brave enough to say, okay, not only am I a witch, and to say that on camera, but I have this coven, I have this group that I practice with, and everyone associated with her had to be brave enough to say, okay, we're comfortable with this.


In California and maybe in New York, it doesn't sound like that big of a deal to say that you're pagan, but obviously being a witch is a big deal in this country. I met with a woman who I thought was so wonderful in Tennessee, and she would have loved to have shared her story but she was terrified. You know, she had seen people lose their jobs, and actually had a friend whose children were taken away from her through child welfare... It was really, I think, all told, six months of going around the country. So, what's the craziest or most intense thing that happened while making this movie?


AM: In terms of the level of intensity, definitely witnessing a Sundance was the most intense part of making this film. And the cinematographer is this very tall, strapping guy, deep voice, [a] kind of tough guy, Greg. He's phenomenally talented, but you know, he kind of likes to throw his weight around, and we were all speechless. Aside from that, Samhain is a big pagan holiday [which we call] Halloween, and I'd never taken part in a Samhain ritual. There were about 50 people there, and there were people dancing and invoking gods and goddesses and speaking in tongues, and that was very intense and very intimate... In popular culture, the idea of inviting the dead into the room is associated with horror movies and stuff you would never want to happen, and this was a room full of people in candlelight, late at night, and the idea was, if this went well, all of our dead relatives would be filling the room and maybe they would even speak through [us]. And that's so far from what I think a lot of people would be okay with taking part in, you know?


But yeah, other than that... we shot under some difficult circumstances. We had some run-ins with tarantulas and local wildlife. Do tell.


Out in California, on Morpheus and Shannon's property, it really is wilderness out there, and it can be really beautiful but... I'd never actually spent that much time off the grid 'cause I'm such a city girl. And we were told that we would be sleeping in these really great abandoned boats that Shannon had dragged onto the property, and he had excavated little holes for them in the ground. So he had seven little boats buried in the ground on the property and he was like, "These make for great cabins, seriously. Your crew should sleep in these abandoned boats in the ground." So we were like, all right, this will be great. We get there and it's bed time and we're hiking up the hill to where we're sleeping in these abandoned boats with just one flashlight between us, and we had just been told that it's tarantula mating season, [and] they're just going to be all over the place, so just keep an eye out on your way back to your abandoned boats... And of course, the next night it flooded, there was rain totally out of season, so it was just hilarious. How do you survive with digital technology—because you know, we shot on HD—running all of your equipment off of a rental SUV while sleeping with tarantulas in flooded boats? ... Of course, they thought we were hilariously underprepared, because they were used to dealing with the wildlife and we were the city slickers, you know, total clichés, going out into the middle of nowhere with our fancy camera equipment trying to make it happen. What's the biggest thing you learned while making this film?


I think I knew this already about non-fiction filmmaking, that you really can't control a scenario, as much as you come up with some fancy concept that sounds fantastic on paper. You can't really make that play out in real life. I think the main thing for me was I'm sort of a control freak, and it helped me to get the film made, but out in the field, I quickly realized that if all I was looking for in these peoples' lives was material that would fill in the blanks for me, then I was going to miss a lot. And I kept expecting these exotic spiritual scenarios to materialize out of my own cinematic imagination, and what I realized was that actually someone like Morpheus, in the film you see her shopping at this 99 cent store, and she buys this blue glass for 99 cents and it just looks like she's shopping at this 99 cent store, but she's taking it home to perform a ritual. And it's actually a lot more about what's going on in these people's imaginations, and so I learned to see things more and more on the subjects' terms as it went along. If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, living or dead, who would it be? Or a dinner party...


Oh, this is like when you go to the video store and suddenly you don't know what you want to rent! [laughs]... I'd say Argento, Polanski, and Roger Corman! What piece of art or media—books, TV, film, whatever—are you recommending to people lately?


Yasuzo Masumura... he's this Japanese director from the '60s and you can only find three of his twentysomething films now, and he did this amazing film called Blind Beast and also this one called Manji and they're totally radical. I don't know how he got past the censors. Like, bisexual love triangles and very poetic mutilation and horrible but intense and passionate ends for everyone, but really fantastic, colorful, at the edge of horror and dark erotic situations. I would love to talk about women in filmmaking, if you're up for it. It's a hoary chestnut, but obviously people have been very excited about Kathryn Bigelow and her big win at the Oscars.


 Growing up as a little girl, my mom wanted to be either a bullfighter or a flamenco dancer, so [that] was the tone in the house. Directing always seemed to me like the hardest job in the universe... I don't think that much about being a woman in terms of the work that I do, but I do notice that there aren't that many peers out there in prominent situations, and that does, I think, shift the dynamic. I was really, really excited to see her win, particularly for a film that no one could peg as a female-centric type of [film, like a] romantic comedy, whatever... It just seemed like such an important and exciting moment, because actually that sort of thing does come into play. Like, having a woman finally win best director does come into play in the backs of people's minds in the business. I mean, I totally believe that. When you're trying to get a project financed, people really make those decisions based on precedent, and precedent takes a lot of forms, and sometimes someone's gender comes into play... and that's just really annoying. I think the more we see women being recognized in film, the more chances are going to pop up for other women in the field.


I'm just really dying for this whole idea of women are only interested in certain kinds of movies... I'm really ready for someone to kick that in the butt, because that's just ridiculous. Almost none of my friends are interested in seeing romantic comedies. I'm sorry. I'm watching Manji, the bisexual love triangle from Japan. [laughs] I talked with a number of my friends in New York and LA who are women who are in the film industry in different kinds of roles and it was pretty unanimous; I mean, everyone's really thrilled. Whether or not they're talking about it, everyone's thrilled. So I'm curious to see if it's going to change the climate. And the other thing too is it doesn't really matter—there are so many hard-headed women out there who are going to go and get their films made regardless. What makes your film a Tribeca must-see?


The reason I made the film is I just hadn't seen anything like it.. I think that it's important to have some way to talk about belief. We don't do everything in our lives for money, and it's just interesting that there aren't many films that reflect that... I made the film because I wanted to be around people who were willing to share that side of their lives with me.


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