Like many American prisons, the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama is a place where society’s worst are collected and stored until they are released or they die. Rehabilitation is not the goal, as much as insuring a relatively incident- and shiv-free life for inmates and guards. But in 2002, Donaldson took a wild and risky chance by allowing a group of inmates to participate in an emotionally grueling 10-day meditation course called Vipassana, based on the teachings of the Buddha and requiring participants to observe nine days of total silence. The upshot will put to rest any notion that hardened criminals are all violent animals unable to function in society. However, at a slender 76 minutes, this chronicle of the Donaldson inmate’s experience never quite feels like the definitive document of the experience. Some avenues, like the depths of the prisoner’s emotional issues and the difficulty in completing the course, are under-explored. But it’s still an inspiring, revelatory journey, as society’s flotsam try a most unusual method to reestablish contact with their humanity and their notions of love and forgiveness. Docu-lovers will be moved by the prisoner’s incremental but palpable mental unshackling. But it’s not polished enough to spread, or strike a nerve, within the wider moviegoing community.
There is nothing about Donaldson, its population or its location that would suggest the teachings of the Buddha would result in anything but derision. Alabama locals believe meditation and the Vipassana discipline to be “witchcraft” and that the prisoners “don’t deserve nothing.” And while the former attitude makes sense in Bible Belt Alabama, the latter is more along the lines of society’s general opinion. Nevertheless, when Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist (and now director, sharing credit with Andrew Kukura and Anne Marie Stein) learned that Donaldson inmates had been gathering to meditate, she went to investigate. Soon, Phillips was suggesting a very intense Vipassana retreat, and it took a year of negotiating before teachers Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley were able to enter the prison and conduct the course.
The documentary focuses mainly on lifers, a good choice considering their violent, supposedly irredeemable nature but, in a sense, unsatisfying, because we’re denied the next step of determining whether the Vipassana experience would make life on the outside easier for ex-cons. Even the warden wonders if inmates volunteered just to get away from the block or had some other ulterior motive. If so, when they stepped into the prison gym, newly decorated with carpeting and curtain partitions, they realized that Vipassana is serious business. There is a strict moral code of conduct, and its schedule of meditation, rest periods and meal times are, in the words of one, “stricter then your normal prison day schedule.” Like all meditation disciplines, Vipassana requires participants to sit in total silence. But here, convicted murderers are completely alone with their thoughts for nine days, where they will eventually dredge up and face some horrible demons within themselves. The film treats the inmates gently and without judgment, much like Vipassana, which translates as “see things as they are.” Grady Bankhead, who otherwise seems like a reasonable sort, is serving life without parole for his role in an attack that killed a man. His Vipassana experience was so transformative that his calm reaction to a horrible event late in the film makes you wonder if Vipassana actually lobotomized him. But it’s open-and-shut proof of the discipline’s restorative effect, an end result so powerful it may induce tears in the viewer. Tears, of course, that dry quickly when the prison chaplain, dismissive of Vipassana’s positive effects, convinces the state to prohibit inmates from meditating.
But even religious leaders, many of who are only concerned with maintaining power over their charges, will be moved by the inmate’s graduation ceremony. One can sense a newfound brightness to their countenance, a release of anger and a willingness to indulge in the smiles and hugs that are not part of prison culture. And their desire to continue practicing “noble silence” after Stewart and Crowley have departed, restores a human dimension to those we strip of such consideration out of convenience and anger. In the end, The Dhamma Brothers is not out to advocate meditation. It advocates caring about, or at least not cruelly dismissing, the well being of those we’d just as soon lock away and forget. The film’s ability to force the viewer to reconsider these long-held notions mitigates most of its flaws.
Directors: Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura and Anne Marie Stein
Producers: Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein
Running Time: 76 min.
Release date: April 11 NY