Recently, my family and I watched a documentary called The Horse Boy, about an autistic boy who goes to Mongolia with his filmmaker father and psychologist mother. I’ve been aware of the film for a while, having first read about it in the New York Times.
First off: it’s excellent; go see it. But rather than a strict review, I wanted to muse on the interpretations surrounding the film, in somewhat of a haphazard manner.
A bit of a spoiler:
the most prominent shaman in northern Mongolia determines that Rowan is destined to become a shaman himself, and recommends that his parents prepare his drum and costume. This is somewhat glossed over in both the movie and the reviews surrounding it. Instead, Westerners seem to pick apart why shamanic healing made such an impact on the boy — and, in the NY Times’ health blog comments, whether the parents are attention-whores going to charlatans. The mother admits that she simply cannot believe in the shamanic worldview; even though the advice has proved correct, she is still trying to fit the round peg of shamanism into the square hole of Western materialism.
But my thought upon seeing the film is: What if the shamans are right?
The film offers tantalizing glimpses. In the van, Rowan is seeing contemplating a mirror — a major tool in a Mongolian shaman’s kit. He isn’t afraid of shamans — and in fact, weeps and begs not to leave the wigwam of the last shaman, the one who divines his destiny.
The first set of shamans concludes that he’s being afflicted by an ancestral spirit; once overcome, such spirits — which cause the illness that initiates a person as a shaman — often become the shaman’s first helpers. Rowan’s great gift is quite literally talking to and understanding animals — not a bad gift for a shaman to have.
In short, no one from the West seems willing to set aside their culturally ingrained disbelief and take the shamans’ interpretations at their face value. To see the film with Other-eyes: perhaps the child’s helping spirits prodded his parents to take him to Mongolia. To Western ears, such a notion sounds patently ridiculous. And yet….
This isn’t to say that all autistic people are shamans; the film wasn’t about all people with autism, but about the trials and travels of one particular individual. This particularity is cited by Western experts as a reason to dismiss the film; there are no peer-reviewed studies, etc. It’s not a scientific experiment, but a spiritual journey.
The film is beautiful, but it also exposes — perhaps unintentionally — the pervasiveness of the Western world-view. We automatically assume that the atheistic, scientific world-view is the correct one — even though it did little to aid the afflicted child before his journey. Why is the West always seen as correct?