Filmmaker Michael Wiese talks about his new Bali doc “Talking with Spirits,” screening at Asian Art Museum this Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Filmmaker Michael Wiese visited Bali in the 1970′s and was led to a remote village by a Balinese salesman. As he participated in elaborate ceremonies, he realized he did not really see the world as the Balinese saw it. Now, 40 years later and many visits between, his new documentary, Talking with Spirits, shows sequences that make us question everything we know about the nature of reality, consciousness, and the very sources of creativity and inspiration. Wiese’s film will be screening this Tuesday, at 2 p.m., at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as part of their programming for Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance which runs through September 11, 2011. This weekend, I interviewed Michael Wiese who was at the Albuquerque Film Festival, where his film had its West Coast premiere.
Talking with Sprits is billed as a documentary, which is a fairly broad category these days. What is it exactly?
Michael Wiese: When I think of documentaries, I think most are intellectual ─ you know, a narrator talking over experiences ─ which this is not. This film guides you and lets you have your own experience. The unseen world by its very nature is very is hard to capture. I am making a film about things that cannot be filmed.
What is the emphasis of the film? From the trailer it appears to delve into trance and possession. Is this a story of communication between a medium and a single person or a community experience?
Michael Wiese: Trance can be very much a community experience. What impressed me when I was there in my 20s was the Balinese connection to the divine. Bali is a culture where people spend 50 percent of their time in temple ceremonies communicating with the gods. In the film, they are in direct communication with the gods. The film explores a man healing somebody as his hands are being guided by a god. Another man is a farmer and he channels Hanuman, one of the Hindu Gods. This is the way it is in Bali—trance is just a way to delve into other states of consciousness. It’s very hard to talk about this because it is so far out of our range of expression and that’s why, instead of writing a book, I made the film. I am capturing what’s happening on the outside, and had to use other techniques to give an impression of what’s going on internally.
It’s also a very personal journey as part of my quest for a cure for Parkinson’s, which I have, which has taken me into a lot of healing modalities, non-Western as well as Western, to find whatever works.
Is this new footage then, or is there some footage from the 1970’s?
Michael Wiese: There’s an introductory clip in the beginning with some archival footage from that first encounter in 1970—maybe 8 min– to bring in the gravity of time, the set and setting, and show what Bali was like when I was a young man, in my early twenties. At that time, we just shot the surface. We did not know what was going on. Stuff was happening but we did not grasp the depth of it or the methods of entry into the unseen worlds. Had we even understood what we were seeing, I doubt that we would have gotten permission to film it. We simply weren’t mature enough or ready to see it.
Is the footage all from the same village?
Michael Wiese: No, we’ve been going back there for the past 40 years. The film was made in many villages in Bali and takes place across the whole island. We have a long-term relationship with a lot of people in Pengosaken village in particular though this village is not at all the focal point.
There have been so many films made on Bali that address trance state, so what’s the unique underlying message in yours?
Michael Wiese: I am not an anthropologist or an expert from a university but I am encouraging people to participate. As a filmmaker you shouldn’t stand back and point the camera in some direction and think that will bring deep understanding of what’s going on. I think one needs to be courageous and jump in the fray, especially when we don’t understand. If a filmmaker can do this and take the audience along then that’s great. If the audience wants to pursue it further in some remote place in Bali, or Tibet, then that’s fine. The wisdom cultures of the world are opening up to the West more and more because it’s vital that the Western world get in touch with the sacred side of things and restore and nurture our home planet. I think that ancient cultures realize this and are reaching outside; whereas, in the past, these teachings have been secret. They are stepping up the game and people will meet this seriously or superficially but, at last, it’s being addressed.
How do you feel about the issue of filmmakers who go to relatively untainted cultures and make films and popularize that area, put it on the map, and thereby accelerate the destruction of the cultures and traditions they are filming? Is there a balance you try to preserve in the face of the blatant spiritual tourism that results from films like “Eat, Pray, Love” (2010)?
Michael Wiese: That is a very real concern for me. I’ve certainly made films where that has come up. Dolphin Adventures (2009) is a film about communication with dolphins. After I made that, people discovered these dolphins and then figured out where they were and went and exploited those dolphins and so I am very sensitive to those issues. On the other hand, people are going to do what they are going to do. As a filmmaker, if you bring awareness that these sacred practices are a sensitive thing and can generate some reverance and respect so that people can approach this with a sense of reverence, this is good. The films I am making now are very niche-oriented and are probably for people already on spiritual quests. I am less concerned with what’s going to happen. The Balinese will open up, or not, depending on the situation and the Balinese understand how superficial a film like “Eat, Pray, Love” is. Ketut Liyer, the actual shaman, or balian, depicted in that film is a friend of mine. Today he does the same palm reading on every divorcee who shows up by the busload at his doorstep and he is laughing all the way to the bank. He’s not being treated seriously and is not treating them seriously. Actually, false shamans in Bali using his name have risen to pick up the business he cannot handle!
What’s the breakthrough moment mentioned in the trailer?
Michael Wiese: There were many. The whole film is a breakthrough. I needed to be in the film because if I am filming something like trance, I need to participate to integrate it within myself. When shamanic musician Alberto Roman and I were invited to enter the sacred space, we did. His trance was much more powerful than mine but I did have an experience of my consciousness being dramatically shifted. If you look at it from the outside, it looks like a bunch of people thrashing about─ and that doesn’t accurately convey the inner experience. The film, I hope, delivers an inner experience.
Bali just kept opening up like a lotus flower. I was very grateful when She (Bali) would offer more and more and this has only deepened over time. I felt that the Balinese had figured out what it means to be human as they know how to bring harmony into so many dimensions of their lives. We have a lot to learn from them.
Who’s in the film with you?
Michael Wiese: Larry Reed is not in the film but shared the experience of that first trip in 1970. He is one of the very few Americans to be trained in wayang kulit, Balinese shadow puppetry, and he performs all over world and has been doing this for years. He has been giving some shadow puppet performances at the Asian Art Museum during the Bali exhibition. (click here to read about shadow puppet events associated with the exhibition “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, through September 11, 2011)
What challenges did you face in making this film?
Michael Wiese: None.
No one has ever said that to me before.
Michael Wiese: When you are in the zone and you are aligned with a purpose and everybody participates in supporting that purpose it’s easy. The last three films I’ve made have been easy in that regard. They are only difficult when you are pushing an agenda. When you come with innocence and ask to be shown, you are not ‘making’ the film; you are part of its co-creation with others and other energies. It’s more the case that I happened to be witness to this and was given this material and the responsibility of shepherding it into the world.
How is this transforming you?
Michael Wiese: Taking the film out into the world is a chore but I have been transformed in considerable ways on a daily basis. Today, we got up at 4:40 a.m. and a Mexican curandera (traditional healer using a Mestizo or syncretic system of healing) came by and took us out into the desert to welcome the sun and held a traditional ceremony for us. That came about because I showed my film about shamanism, The Shaman and Ayahuasca, here in Albuquerque last year. That film was shot in the Amazon and Peru and delves into the healing and vision ceremonies (using ayahuasca, a psychoactive healing brew using vines and leaves) of Don José Campos and Pablo Amaringo, a painter and former shaman. I could give you several more examples of things, big and small, occurring over years. Spirituality has always been a part of my work too but I’ve taken a stronger stand in creating more work in that genre. I’ve dipped in and out of making consciousness films, human potential, and spiritual films my whole career. Divine Arts, our new company is about drawing a circle in the sand and saying let’s call it what it is and create spiritual films and books.
Tell me about your company DIVINE ARTS.
I have a company (Michael Wiese Productions (MWP.com), that publishes film books—how to write films, screenplays, all of that—and over the past thirty years, have become the leading publisher in that field of “how to.” Now, years later, we see a real need for “why to” books, about what filmmakers can do with these tools in the field of conscious media. About a year and half ago, my wife and I decided to start DIVINE ARTS, a spiritual book line—arts, culture, spirit. We’ve published about 5 or 6 books in our first year.
Having explored Balinese and South American spiritual practices, is there another region that holds a particular interest for you?
Tibet and Buddhism have always interested me. A few years ago I made the film The Sacred Sites of the Dali Lamas (2007) and, this October, a companion book will come out from DIVINE ARTS. I am interested in all spiritual practices which move the practitioner to the same cosmic awareness, recognizing that these practices they may be expressed differently in different cultures. I draw inspiration through my experiences and relationships with people in these different spiritual cultures. It is a very rich, magnificent and abundant world we live in.
Talking with Spirits, directed and produced by Michael Wiese (90 min, 2011) screens at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 2 p.m. There will be a Q&A session with Michael Wiese after the screening.
Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday- Wednesday and Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Mondays. http://www.asianart.org/ or (415) 581-3500. Tickets: $12.00 Adult General Admission. $5.00 surcharge for “Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance” which ends September 11, 2011. Parking: Civic Center Garage is just steps away from the museum entrance.