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Movie Review

Looking at changed lives on death row

The documentary follows inmates as they take part in a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at an Alabama prison in May 2002. The documentary follows inmates as they take part in a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at an Alabama prison in May 2002. (Balcony releasing)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008

"Every person is more than the worst thing they've ever done." If you have trouble with that concept, voiced by a prisoners' rights activist, you'll have trouble with "The Dhamma Brothers," a sincere but unevenly made documentary about Buddhism on death row. If, on the other hand, you believe that even murderers have the right to inner peace - which no one here seems to mistake for simple forgiveness - the film is as thought-provoking as it aims to be.

Directed by the triumvirate of Jenny Phillips (prison worker), Andrew Kukura (filmmaker), and Anne Marie Stein (educator), "Dhamma Brothers" brings a camera into Alabama's Donaldson Correctional Facility in May 2002 as a group of prisoners - almost all of them hardened lifers - begins a 10-day course of Vipassana meditation. No one's certain if this is a good idea, including the convicts themselves, but everyone from warden Stephen Bullard on down feels there's not much to lose.

The program is spearheaded by director of treatment Ron Cavanaugh and led by Vipassana teachers Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley, but it's the students doing the heavy lifting: a dozen or so angry, aggressive men suddenly asked to disconnect their wiring and just sit for 10 solid days of "noble silence." The film focuses most closely on four of the prisoners, one of whom, Grady Bankhead, speaks of the wall he hit on the fifth day and the ensuing emotional thunderstorm in which finally he accepted his own guilt. "It was horrible," he says. "I've spent eight and a half years on death row, but this was harder."

Most of the prisoners continued meditating after they'd graduated from the program, and the filmmakers interview correctional officers who admit, sometimes grudgingly, that these men have changed in fundamental ways. They even kept meeting on the sly after the prison chaplain had the meditation course shut down, fearing Buddhist inroads into his Christian prison population. (The program has since resumed and been introduced to a second Alabama prison.)

We get a glimpse of the larger cultural hostility to this "outsider religion" - a church-lady type interviewed on the street dismisses Buddhism as witchcraft - but the viewpoint of the film is mostly as circumscribed as the lives of the prisoners it depicts. Further details about Vipassana and the techniques it employs would have been welcome, and the directors don't help their cause with an impressionistic, overly emotional filmmaking approach. (One man speaks of the children he barely knows, and we cut to a still of a sad girl on a school bus.)

Because "The Dhamma Brothers" aims to convince, it doesn't want to hear from the skeptics. The teacher, Stewart, admits that some prisoners get it and others just play games, trying to "fake it till they make it." I'd have liked to have heard from some of the latter, if only to see what ersatz inner contentment looks like. Instead, much of the running time is devoted to those whose bliss is genuine, complicated, and hard-won, and we're left to wonder what the US prison system would look like if there were a million of these men instead of a handful.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

The Dhamma Brothers

Directed by: Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, Anne Marie Stein

Starring: Grady Bankhead, Edward Johnson, Ben Oryang, Bruce Stewart

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 76 minutes

Unrated (descriptions of first-degree murder)

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