[Psychomagic] is an art, not a science. I make all the art.”
By Gary M. Kramer.
Chilean cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has always been a cine-magician. He made his feature debut with the surrealistic Fando and Lis (1968) and then achieved worldwide attention for his cult films, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). His career resurged with the release of the wildly inventive Santa Sangre (1989), but it has been his recent autobiographical fantasies, The Dance of Reality (2013) and its sequel, Endless Poetry (2016), that are arguably his best works. His films are visually and emotionally dazzling, and they also provide a personal catharsis for the filmmaker. Viewers become immersed in these strange worlds that have deep symbolic meanings
Jodorowsky has always been interested in the unconscious, and that extends to his practice of a trauma therapy he has developed that is the subject of his new documentary Psychomagic: A Healing Art. In the opening scenes of this film, the director explains that unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, his practice is rooted in acts. Psychomagic involves touching and initiatic massage as well as acts that rid people of pain—be it familial, social, or cultural. What Jodorowsky says Psychomagic does is “teach the unconscious reality.”
As the film’s dozen case studies illustrate, various men and women have been able to overcome depression, guilt, and suicidal thoughts, as well negative feelings about family by participating in acts that release and free them—from a woman who goes skydiving to get over a trauma to a man who smashes large squashes in an alley with a hammer to free himself of his negative feelings towards his parents and siblings.
Psychomagic: A Healing Art is an episodic and largely observational documentary, but it is fascinating in how it presents Jodorowsky’s therapy. The filmmaker spoke with Film International about his practice and his new film.
Gary M. Kramer: How did you develop the practice of Psychomagic?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: It grew like a mushroom. I do not have a scientific sense like Freud and Jung. It’s an art, not a science. I make all the art. I did theater in Mexico, I put on plays, did the costumes, and I was living in the theater. I made all these avant-garde theater experiences, Ionesco, etc. It was not a business. It was money to live. I was trying to develop myself doing that and discovered “real” theater. I eliminated things like public sittings, and I made theater in the bus, on the train, in the street. When I did that, I went against the writers. The actors were not parrots repeating words. I came to a theater of action—improvised actions. We had an idea, and then I invented the weird act. I destroyed scenes. I eliminated the architecture of the actor and the public and then I eliminated the public so it was only the action of the actor. I was telling one person—”Do this,” and I proposed an act, a liberating act, and the person would do it. Then it became a poetical act—improvise a poetical, artistic act of freedom. It was beautiful. Step by step, I came to Psychomagic. I did that because I had a son who died at 24 from an overdose. That destroyed me, and put me in reality. I was living in art. Every moment after that, I was in reality. I could not heal my son, I made errors, so I needed to do something so I could heal. I would not make any more art unless that art heals something.
With Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, if there was a problem, the ill person needs to pay them. It’s a business. If I want to heal, it has to be free—money is an illness of our civilization. I need to have an art for a living—industrial art, making comic books. But to heal is free. When a person comes to me, I get to know them. They have an illness, but I say, “I am not a doctor. I can only heal spiritual or psychological problems, not tuberculosis or cancer.” I start with a study of the genealogical tree. The problems come from the family. Grandfather to father to us to the children. I get to know the family through generations and come to know the problem. Then I make an act that will heal the person. It can be like a placebo because the unconscious will work. Psychoanalysis asks, “What are your dreams?” I put the logic of dreams into realistic language and make the unconscious real. We need to think differently to make the ego speak the language of the unconscious and something will change. And healing will come.
The act is for one person not for everyone, like medicine. It’s different, like shoes you make by hand versus shoes made by a machine. It’s not a machine; it’s an artistic mind. I will tell you what to do, but I need to know the illness and trauma.
GMK: What can you say about the case studies you present in the film? How did you choose these individuals?
AJ: They chose me. They wrote a letter or stopped me in the street and said, “Do something for me.” One wrote me from Mexico, “I can’t speak clearly [the stutterer] how can I heal myself of that?”There was a Mexican woman whose [lover] committed suicide. I said, “You need to come to Paris, where I’m shooting, but there is no cost.” We paid for the travel we paid everything.
To heal, you need to dress as you want to be dressed. Pascal [Jodorowsky’s wife] went to a store and showed the clothes they needed to have. One man needed a person taking care of him. We went to Spain, and I buried him and put meat in his grave and he changed because it was like a fairy tale for him. The only thing you need to do for me is senda letter saying what was your problem, and then tell me what you feel after the act happened. I am making a book and we will publish Psychomagic in Action. Psychoanalysis can take 15 years and you pay the whole time. Psychomagic is one day for the genealogy, the second day we buy things for the act, and the third day is the act and then you are finished.
GMK: On that note, what can you say about creating the acts that the men and women in Psychomagic perform? The documentary does not explain why you are having these folks do these things, but we do see how they are affected by them.
AJ: I am an artist. I make plays, poetry, books. It’s a poetic act, like making an oil painting. I give them the act, and they need to respect the act that I give. The act is work. In Mexico, I studied with a shaman healer. I explain why you make an act. Sometimes it can be very funny. A newspaper person had a problem with his father who didn’t want him to be a writer. So, I said, take ink and mix with blood and write on the paper and put it in a duck and cook it and make the father eat it. He said, “I will do it!” He will make his father eat all his anger and it will go away.
GMK: One of the treatments you employ is cutting away the clothes someone is wearing. Can you talk about this practice, and the idea of symbolism in your work?
AJ: The costume is the symbol. It can hide what you are or show what you are. Priests have a sacred costume. If you change your dress, you will see a side of yourself you don’t know.
GMK: Your films, particularly your autobiographical ones, The Dance of Reality (based on your book)and its sequel, Endless Poetry are really extraordinary works, full of invention and ideas. Can you talk about how making these films, and even Psychomagic, is cathartic and therapeutic for you?
AJ: It is a very different experience when I make a film. I am careful. I repeat shot 20 times, and I repeat the camera angle and the lighting. But here [with Psychomagic], we cannot do that because you are shooting the person and it wouldn’t be real [to reshoot a scene]. I will shoot a moment, and I can stop it so I can be alone and move the camera or make an indication for a movement. I cannot speak in front of the [participant] or rehearse with them so they don’t lie. If I did, they would say nothing real. I speak with them in another way, making them trust me.
GMK: Have you had any negative responses to the therapy, episodes where you had to take a different approach? Can you discuss that?
AJ: No, it’s free. The person knows it’s an art. They do it because they want to. If it’s not good, then it’s not good. They write and ask me to do this; they are not obliged like in psychoanalysis. They are taking an artistic pleasure. The man who stutters, I dressed him in the style of a child and left him free to do what he wants in Disneyland—to live his childhood freely, and that was fantastic for him. Then I painted him gold and put him in a street full of tourists, walking almost naked, saying a poem. He did it and it took the [stuttering] problem away. I did the healing and you can see how I am healing. It is not a documentary, but a reality. From the moment motion pictures were created, the actor was lying. Roles are invented. I’m trying to show reality.
GMK: What are your fears? What anguish do you have?
AJ: I don’t have fears now. I am objective. For the first time, we are in a pandemic all over the whole planet. It’s not just medical concerns, but a weird political scene, and the social fabric of the world. I worry about laboratories making a business of the life and health of people… Politics are weird now with China, and I’m worried about the election of a new U.S. president. The world is ill, and that concerns me.
I want Psychomagic to go international. I wanted to make an act in Brazil. The Amazon forest is burning. We need to do something because it provides oxygen for the planet, and we need to save the world. I have 10M followers on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I said we need to plant a tree to have oxygen for the Earth, and millions of people did it.
GMK: You have had some very interesting and distinct periods of filmmaking in your career. You started out with surrealistic cult films, had a resurgence with Santa Sangre, and then made the autobiographical films. What observations do you have about your career in terms of its phases, and how your life impacted and influenced your work?
AJ: I’m not an industrial filmmaker. Hollywood is not my world. This is a business, but that is not for me. I believe in art. I cannot make a picture every year or two years. That is like making hot dogs. If I make picture after picture, I can buy a house, and a plane, but that is not for me. I make a film when I have something to say or show. My first film was negative because I was negative. El Topo, I made a Buddhist picture about a bad guy who was a saint. The Holy Mountain was surrealism. It was a critical of society and fantasy. I made a film that was anti-Hollywood. It was magic and alchemy. Then I needed to make a picture with feelings. Sante Sangre was about a psychological problem; it was very deep. I found money from an Italian producer who wanted to make a film with me: Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento.
And I did everything because I wrote the script. I knew about the criminal. He killed 17 women and buried them in the garden of his mother’s house and spent years in an asylum and was healed and went out, got married, and had a child. And he remembered nothing. I then had nothing to say, and I had no money. You need someone who is ready to lose money. But I became my own producer and saved my money for twenty years to make The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry and in those twenty years, I had a child, got divorced, fought to economize, created Psychomagic, did tarot and other things. And when I was ready to make the film, I made the film. The film is the truth and at age 86, I went to the town where I was born and I showed my childhood in the real place that was my home. Everything from art is autobiography.
Psychomagic is available at Alamo on demand starting August 7.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.