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Jurgen Fauth & Marcy Dermansky

Review: The Dhamma Brothers

By April 15, 2008

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The Dhamma Brothers - Movie Review

I don't enjoy dumping a bunch of negativity on a well-intentioned small movie with a brief engagement at Cinema Village, but it has to be said: The Dhamma Brothers, a doc about inmates at an Alabama high-security prison who take a meditation course, is disappointingly superficial. Even to somebody without personal interest in meditation, the topic is ripe with fascinating implications -- but The Dhamma Brothers addresses none of them.

The trio of co-directors (Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein) dutifully introduces us to a cast of lifers whose crimes are reenacted to Sigur Ros while a vaguely spooky font spells out their regrets. We meet the gentle Buddhist teachers, who subject them to a grueling ten-day course in Vipassana meditation, and we get a few choice quotes from skeptical Alabama correctional officers. But beyond the visual novelty of murderers and rapist sitting in silent practice, The Dhamma Brothers seems to be interested in surprisingly little.

At a slim 76 minutes, the film gives the general impression that meditation means a lot to the inmates, but offers maddeningly little context: how have similar programs worked elsewhere? How were the participating inmates selected? What did other inmates make of it? Why was the program discontinued before it expanded? What exactly are the teachings of Vipassana? What does daily practice look like after the initial ten-day program? You don't have to believe in the Maharishi Effect to feel that The Dhamma Brothers is a wasted opportunity to explore a bold experiment at the nexus of guilt, compassion, liberty, and forgiveness. I'm tempted to call it criminal.

The Dhamma Brothers is currently playing at New York's Cinema Village. The official site has the trailer. ** [posted by Jürgen]


September 18, 2008 at 11:31 am
(1) norbu dhundup says:

the fact that this documentary raised all those questions you have is a sign of a success of this documentary. i can’t imagine the extent of risks these film makers and the teachers took to be in proximity of those death row inmates. your conclusion, the last sentence is an utter shock to me.

September 19, 2008 at 11:46 am
(2) Jürgen says:

Hi Norbu,

thank you for your comments. Sure, the film successfully raised those questions, but I think it could have been more successful if it actually tried to address or even answer them. I was grateful for this window into a fascinating experiment, I just wish the filmmakers would have taken it further.

As for the risks, I suppose imagining them is the best we could do because the movie doesn’t dramatize or illustrate them.

My concluding sentence was offered in a spirit of wordplay. Obviously, I don’t actually believe the movie is criminal, and that’s why I left it at “tempted to call it.” I meant no offense and I certainly didn’t want to shock anybody — I was just looking for what I hoped would be an amusing way to express my frustration with what I felt was a wasted opportunity.

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