The Making of the Film CRAZYWISE

For over 25 years Phil Borges has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures, striving to create a deep understanding of the challenges they face from the forces of economic globalization and environmental devastation. His work is exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. His documentary, CRAZYWISE, reveals a paradigm shift that is changing the way Western culture defines and treats “mental illness.” The film highlights a survivor-led movement demanding more choices from a mental health care system in crisis. He has hosted television documentaries on indigenous cultures for the Discovery and National Geographic channels. Phil regularly presents at universities, teaches workshops, and has spoken at multiple TED events.

I‘ve spent nearly three decades as a photographer and filmmaker documenting indigenous and tribal cultures, striving to help the rest of the world understand the challenges these vital but vulnerable peoples face.

When I started working on a documentary film titled CRAZYWISE five years ago, I had no way of knowing it would affect my life so deeply. The lives of the people I met touched my life in extraordinary ways. The wisdom I received from those with direct lived experience of these non-ordinary, extreme states, as well as the thoughtful reflections of the expert mental health professionals we interviewed will stay with me forever. What I experienced and learned during the production of the film was profound.

I didn’t realize it at the time but the seeds of CRAZYWISE actually were planted in 1994, when I was invited to watch a Tibetan monk known as a Kuten go into trance and…

‘channel’ the protector spirit of Tibet. Two days after witnessing that fascinating ceremony, I had an opportunity to interview him. He told me he was chosen to be a Kuten in his twenties after he began having mood swings, personality changes, extreme dreams, and hearing voices—symptoms that would have had him diagnosed and labeled mentally ill in our culture.

Over the years, while working in tribal and indigenous communities, I have met and interviewed many individuals like the Kuten, who go into altered states of consciousness to act as healers or visionaries. These are the people we call shamans. I was surprised to learn that most were identified in their youth by having a severe crisis. Sometimes it was a physical illness, but most often it was a mental or emotional crisis.

This was a curiosity to me but it took on a much deeper significance when I met a young man named Adam who had suffered a severe psychological crisis when he was 20. He was diagnosed bipolar and placed on medication for four years, then he quit all his meds after suffering severe side effects. At the time I was doing a short film on meditation and I took a special interest in Adam because he had seemed to stabilize himself by doing ten-day, silent Vipassana meditation retreats.

This was the beginning of the film CRAZYWISE. While following Adam, I started interviewing mental health professionals and other people who had successfully navigated a mental health crisis. I was shocked to learn that the rates of depression, suicide, and mental health disability have skyrocketed in the past 25 years in spite of a dramatic 40-fold increase in our mainstream pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness. I also learned that the public’s commonly held belief that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain has never been scientifically proven.

I want to make it clear that in each of the 80+ interviews we conducted for the film, everyone said that medication has a place in treatment, especially for the short-term relief of severe symptoms. Almost everyone agreed, however, that medications are being overly prescribed, especially in children, and that medication use has eclipsed the necessity of establishing important psycho-social, biological, and spiritual foundations of sound mental health.

Like Adam, so many people who had experienced a severe psychological crisis said they were told that there was no definitive cure for their condition and that they would most likely have to be on medication for the rest of their life. That life-long sentence was accompanied by a diagnosis and label that carried a lot of stigma and shame. Many ended up frightened and isolated—obviously not the best recipe for good mental health.

It struck me what a different message the shamans I had met had been given.  They were typically told they had a special sensitivity that needed to be developed and worked with. Most often an older shaman who had experienced a crisis herself mentored them through their initiation. They were also told that once they learned to work with their unique energies, they would become an important asset to the community. Instead of a narrative creating fear and isolation, they were given a message that delivered hope, meaning, and purpose.

My only background in psychology was a Psych 1A class I took as an undergraduate at Berkeley so all this was extremely interesting to me. The most fascinating learning, however, came from the individuals who shared the details of their crisis with me. Adam said, “When it first happened, it was very fun and exciting! It was the first time I felt a real connection to the universe—where I was it and it was me. It was just incredible! Then I kept going and I went way too far.  Then it got scary.”

I’ve heard this feeling of unity and ultra-connectedness expressed over and over again. It was often accompanied by a feeling of responsibility and compassion for everyone and everything. “I needed to bring everyone together to save the world.”  “I began writing the instructional manual to bring Islam and Christianity together.”

I have always wondered what people mean when they use the word ‘spiritual.’ It is such a loaded term. However, I have come to believe that this feeling of unity is a spiritual experience, and that there is a strong spiritual component in many psychological crises. It appears that a crisis can transform an individual’s identity as a ‘separate self’ and that transformation has the potential to deliver in a moment what many of the sages and mystics had to strive for in their ‘spiritual’ practices for years.

I’ve spent much time in Tibet and around the Tibetan people. Many of their meditations and practices aim to reduce what they call the enemy of peace and liberation—that is the attitude of ‘self cherishing’ and ‘self grasping’ that we all wrestle with. It’s fascinating to me that a psychological crisis can give one a glimpse of what it may take years of spiritual practice to accomplish.

In our current interviews with people dealing with these extreme states, we are starting to focus on the spiritual aspects of a crisis in order to learn more about the triggers that induce a crisis and the factors that turn a spiritual experience into distress. These interviews on the CRAZYWISE Blog are meant to expand our knowledge of these often misunderstood aspects of a psychological crisis, and to advocate for a more open-minded, attuned response from the mental health and medical community.

Join the dialogue at To watch the film in its entirety, click here.

**NOTE: ACISTE does not take a stance on the use or non-use of medication. We recognize that each individual’s life journey and process of integration is unique and will have unique needs. Please visit for more perspective on our organizational mission, vision, and values.

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