‘Spirituality for the Uninsured’ focuses on experience

Tibetan monk prepares to destoy the mandalla — Courtesy Paul Larsen Colby Patterson

Unbeknownst to many, the film department’s faculty at the U are not just faculty — they are also working filmmakers. The most recent and prominent example is Paul Larsen, a professor of screenwriting. In 2007, he decided to look at spirituality and how it applies to people suffering with addiction. Seven years down the road, Larsen’s idea has come to fruition with his fourth documentary “Spirituality for the Uninsured.”

Premiering Friday at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, “Spirituality for the Uninsured” depicts how spiritual ceremonies, including sweat lodges, can heal the crippling power of addiction. When looking at Larsen’s past, it is evident this theme is attached to much of his work. His filmography indicates the importance of the clashes between different ideals, cultures and illnesses. For instance, “Chasing a Good Day to Die” revolves around the impact American Indian rituals have on people striving to overcome past trauma, and “To Be or Not To Be” follows two boys with Down syndrome and their experiences in a school classroom.

While making “Spirituality for the Uninsured,” Larsen volunteered for a juvenile corrections program. Larsen and an American Indian healer performed sweat lodge rituals.

“It became clear to me that many of these young men and women were struggling because they had a poor grounding in the world,” Larsen said.

In addition to volunteering to youth outreach programs, Larsen and his group performed the ceremonies in prisons. Larsen believes that without spirituality, the children from the juvenile corrections program will end up in prison.

“Spiritual ceremonies are not about a belief system. The kids can believe what they will about the world … [It’s about] an experience, which shifts how they feel about the world. Often it adds a dimension to life they hadn’t known existed, and this is true of many spiritual rituals,” Larsen said.

The core truth Larsen seeks to uncover is the base experience spirituality can have on people facing trouble, and he wisely doesn’t limit those options to one dogma. Different antidotes work for different troubles. By weaving together stories of Buddhist, Christian and American Indian practices, Larsen aims to portray that spirituality can heal addiction and behavioral issues.

“Once again, this is not about dogma or theological belief, but about experience and how that leaves a person feeling,” Larsen said.

The flick’s executive producer, Floyd Wilkes, has also participated in the sweat lodge experience. This is his first venture with Larsen, but he’s certainly been enjoying the ride.

“Paul’s courage inspired me. His willingness to look honestly at the alienation afflicting so many of us in the world … spoke to me,” Wilkes said.

Of course, Larsen and Wilkes don’t plan to celebrate just yet. Following the premiere, they hope the film will achieve a worthwhile afterlife. They know they’ve struck a certain chord when it comes to the practice and application of spirituality upon troubled souls.

“Our goal is to travel around with it, and show it to audiences and then generate discussion. Ultimately, my goal is to remind folks who are struggling, like several individuals interviewed in the film, that these practices exist, and that they might be of help,” Larsen said.

d.griffin@chronicle.utah.edu