Working Title “Shaman” (April 1986)


Ontario Arts Council Film “B” Grant Proposal
Working Title “Shaman”
Mike Cartmell, April 1986

For the past three years I have been working on a group of four films which I’ve come to call the Egyptian Narrative Series (Prologue: Infinite Obscure, In the Form of the Letter “X”; Cartouche; Farrago). Briefly, these films are concerned with issues of identity and origin; with the problematics of the name, its itinerary and effects; with the development of a form of cinematic writing based on, or developed from, the hieroglyphic. Taken together, I believe these films represent both a coherent investigation of some important contemporary artistic (and philosophical) concerns, and a unique and challenging address to some of the dominant modes characterizing Canadian experimental/avant-garde cinema.

The film I would propose to produce now marks a development of the Egyptian Narrative Series, but with a sharp shift in thematic centre toward the possible curative or therapeutic functions of art and with a stylistic move toward the more concretely narrativistic and performative. Specifically, I am interested in using some of the techniques of ritualistic shamanism, or what I’d call “shamanistic transference” (deliberately invoking the psychoanalytic sense of transference). This sounds, no doubt, like a lot of theoretical mumbo-jumbo, so let me try to say clearly what I’m on about.

I’d argue, along with psychoanalysis, that people’s mental or psychic or creative lives are fundamentally SPLIT. We could describe this split as follows: on the one hand, we all possess a private individual storehouse of images, beliefs, personae – a personal mythology which has a specific continuity to it – which ultimately enables a sense of identity, of self, an ego. This is what marks our uniqueness, our difference from everybody else; we could call this storehouse the IMAGINARY (bearing in mind the sense of image beyond the merely pictorial).

There’s another part to us that is profoundly social, in which is registered our sameness with respect to everybody else, and whose contents have their origin not in experience per se (at least, it is not remembered as experience). This “part” is the locus of social codes, language, complexes, desires; we could call it the SYMBOLIC.

We could say that the Imaginary is the site of BELIEF and that the Symbolic is the site, not of knowledge, but let’s say UNBELIEF. In making this distinction I’m thinking of Stephen Dedalus in the library chapter of Ulysses: Stephen lays out his theory of Hamlet – a long discourse on engenderment, paternity, art, sexuality, death, and he’s finally asked if he believes his own theory. He says he doesn’t and thinks to himself “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief.”

The locus of belief is the Ego, the self, what I’ve called the Imaginary above. The “other chap” is the Id, the unconscious if you will, the site of unbelief, the Symbolic.

It is precisely the social that gives rise to the “stuff” of the unconscious: social relations, family drama, sexuality, identity, desire, death; all of which are matters of powerful complexity, all subject to massive distortion, all operators of – and operated by – contradiction. All, within popular discourses, subject to the strictures and constraints of BELIEF. All demanding rearticulation via the offices of the “other chap.”


The shamanistic function provides this rearticulation, not by means of an exclusive attention to the Symbolic, but through the elaborate construct of (ritualized) points of contact between the Imaginary and Symbolic realm, between Belief and Unbelief. Traditionally, the tribal Shaman was able to dramatize his/her personal, private storehouse of images in ways that allowed the group to contextualize or articulate them in terms of more general social meaning. The shamanistic “performance” functioned as a SCREEN against which tribal belief could be reflected and dismantled (Unbelief) and be rendered socially useful, therapeutic or curative. (An example of this function in Western culture might be Freud’s extensive analysis of his own psychic life in The Interpretation of Dreams as a means of arriving finally at a therapeutic science.) The Shaman’s operation is idiomatic and impersonal at once, drawing on the most subjective, private areas of experience for the handling and treatment of public affairs and objective problems. Shamanism can be construed, then, as the embedding of one’s personal mythology (the Imaginary) with a system of language and culture (the Symbolic).

I’d like to mention the sense in which this engagement with shamanism can be seen as a development of what I’m coming more and more to see my challenge to, or critique of, the dominant view of Canadian experimental/avant-garde cinema (i.e. anti-narrative, photographic, “post-modernist”). My work of the last three years has inclined increasingly toward the narrative, and the Shaman, while a performer, an inventor, is also precisely a narrator, a producer not of dogma, recipes, homilies or even stories but of narrative. But as such, the shaman stands decidedly apart from any notion of authority or genius or “strong maker.” The shaman is a mediator, a mouthpiece, almost a linguistic function. In addition, although the shaman’s “material” is personal, private, Imaginary, his/her concern is not the articulation of consciousness, of Self or ego, but exactly the opposite: the terrain of the social, of the unconscious, of Unbelief. The shaman is an exchange function in an open and general economy, and in no way the master of a text.

I’ve enclosed with this application a brief outline of how I see the structure of this film. The production and assembly of images and sounds will be a necessary first step before a final and detailed “scripting” can be done.


Outline – Working Title “Shaman”
Mike Cartmell, April 1986

1. Rite
Documentary-like presentation of material relating to shamanistic practices (Siberian and Native Canadian), examples of shamanistic artifacts, etc. Discussion of shamanistic principles. Western examples eg. Freud. Research sources: Mircea Eliade, Claude Levi-Struass, Artscanada.
approx.. 3 minutes

2. Descent
Death of the author/emergence of the Shaman.
Establishment of totem images: whale, name, baseball, child.
Gradual optical slow-down of imagery. Increasing darkness
approx. 5 minutes

3. (central section)
The performance of the shaman is shot as a sync sequence, and is overlayed with complex optical super (storehouse of imagery). The footage is shot on high-contrast black and white printer stock, positive and negative, thereby providing a suitable ground for superimposition. Soundtrack contains the shaman’s discourse, but also distortions, repetitions of same, as well as sound pertinent to the storehouse imagery.
approx.. 20 minutes

4. Ascent
Expiation, death, transference, liberation.
Increasing brightness, colour. Explosive imagery.
approx.. 5 minutes