Among the many unusual features of Sas Carey's résumé is the small section about the languages she speaks: English, French, Swedish and "beginning Mongolian." Sure enough, on a bookshelf in Carey's Middlebury home sits a binder for a Mongolian-language audio course.
That binder is in good company. Carey's home is packed with artwork from and about Mongolia, and crafts, photographs and souvenirs from her many trips to the country. But the most recent manifestation of Carey's longtime fascination is one that she produced herself. Her documentary Ceremony, which evolved over more than 10 years of travel to Mongolia, finally premieres this week at Middlebury's Town Hall Theater.
Carey, 70, has a nursing degree as well as a passion for nonclinical treatments; she says her abiding goal is to "harmonize" the two. On her website, she calls herself a "private healer and spiritual guide," offering services such as "energy healing" and "spiritual readings."
She's equally invested in sharing her interest in Mongolia, which she's been visiting regularly since 1994. That passion has produced one book, Reindeer Herders in My Heart, and more than half a dozen films. Carey founded and directs a charitable organization called Nomadicare, which is devoted to preserving and sustaining the unique culture of nomadic Mongolians.
A former potter and masseuse, among other occupations, Carey gives credit for her polymathic tendencies to her Quaker upbringing. "As a Quaker, you listen for your calling for what you're supposed to do," she says, "and it's a changing kind of thing. You do a thing 'til you're done with it; then you do the next thing 'til you're done with it."
Carey gathered hundreds of hours of footage for Ceremony, her documentary about traditional Mongolian shamanic practices. One of her greatest difficulties, she says, was turning that raw material into a story that would convey her ideas about her subject. She initially wanted to include neither footage of herself nor a voiceover track in the film. But Carey eventually realized that including herself in the movie was the key to its structure, with the help of a story consultant who told her, "You really need some glue to put this together, and you're the glue," she says.
Carey's decision to incorporate her own guiding presence is a boon to the film's audience, since the shamanic practices it depicts would otherwise be inscrutable to most viewers. Mongolian shamans, for instance, consider epilepsy an indication of the sufferer's putative healing powers. As Carey learns about this culture, she brings viewers along into a world of surpassing unfamiliarity.
Shooting video in remotest Mongolia would be a challenge even for seasoned directors, but filmmaking autodidact Carey prevailed over the harsh conditions on the steppes. With no electrical grid to rely on, she had to power her gear with batteries and solar panels and to trek to shooting locations riding a horse — or a reindeer.
Ceremony's 45 minutes condense a great deal of Carey's own experience. Not only were its 125 hours of footage shot over the span of a decade, but the director's access to Mongolian healing ceremonies was anything but immediate. She had to earn her subjects' trust — not an easy task, despite having worked on the project since 2003. "It took some years until [the shamans] let me see a ceremony, and then a little bit more until they let me shoot the ceremony," Carey says.
Certain of these rituals are traditionally held only in darkened yurts, a setting where it is difficult to obtain a readable image. And visibility was only half the problem, Carey says. On the voiceover track of Ceremony, she comments on a ceremony that she witnessed and filmed while in the dark: "It's not until the next year, when I show the footage to the ... shamans for them to explain, that I understand what I'm seeing."
When Carey speaks of the ceremonies she witnessed, it's clear that she was strongly impressed by their visceral force. "Their system is thousands and thousands of years old," she says. "It's very powerful. They just allow their souls to leave their bodies. They're just like shells that are accepting their ancestors' spirits, and they start acting like something else. In the movie, [a shaman named] Nergui starts howling like a wolf. It's like the energy of the wolf is in his body."
Medical doctors might not be impressed by such techniques, but Carey is sincere in her awe for the millennia-old healing traditions — a sincerity that comes through clearly in her latest film.
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Vermonter's Film Explores Mongolia's Shamanic Rites"