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Sidewalk 2008: Uncomfortable silence


Movie review: ‘The Dhamma Brothers’


I’m fascinated by prisons. But like most people, I don’t give them a lot of thought. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

The Dhamma BrothersAnd I certainly don’t pay much heed to meditation, yoga or Eastern alternative medicine. Give me a pill or a walk on the treadmill any day.

So what to make of “The Dhamma Brothers”? This remarkable documentary examines the first U.S. prison — just over in western Jefferson County near Bessemer — to use ancient vipassana meditation techniques with violent cons.

Vipassana comes from India, focusing on introspection for transformation, but it boils down to men sitting on cushions, utterly silent for 10 days. This potentially dull setup makes for an ultimately engaging story. I’m sure this movie will win an award or two at Sidewalk, and will likely be the best one you see all weekend.

It screens Sunday at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.


Donaldson Correctional Facility sits in our back yard, just far enough out of sight that we’re not reminded of its maximum-security designation or its 1,000 or so murders, rapists and thieves. Like most prisons, it faces the minute-by-minute challenge: What do we do with all these people?

If you believe prisons are too soft, you answer is likely “Who cares?” Indeed, most of the participants in this 2002 pilot program killed innocent people, and have been duly sentenced to life (or multiple life) sentences without parole. Some face death row.

The guards, the prisoners, their families, even the warden who proposes this program, are skeptical of bringing Buddhist breathing techniques to hardcore lifers. The organizers point out that they’re teaching meditation, not Buddhism, apparently is a sticking point with some Christian outsiders, not to mention the warden.

The two teachers come from the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Mass. We see them move in for the duration, explaining to the participants (and to us) about what to expect: no talking, no reading, no television, no distractions. You rise to the sound of a small bell, you eat and take breaks as a group, but mostly you sit very still, breathing deliberately, listening occasionally to pre-recorded chants.

The indoor gymnasium transforms into a makeshift monastery, divided into areas for sleeping, eating and thinking by blue plastic sheets and white bed sheets.

While they may sit in silence for 10 days, the filmmakers take no such risk, peppering the entire movie with narration from the students and teachers, as well as family members and guards. It is a small sticking point, but would it have been too much to have two minutes of silent observation of this unprecedented class?

The asides give us glimpses into the cons and their crimes. And we learn that all that time meditating forces an ugly confrontation: with themselves.

Following graduation, the Dhamma brothers, as they come to call themselves, practice meditation on their own and in groups. (Dhamma refers to the teachings of Buddha.) They notice their reactions to their situation, their fellow inmates and the guards slowly transforms. Anger and violence gives way to … measured thought.

It is riveting.

And after the course, we see a few surprising twists at the prison.

Directors Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein spend four years documenting this small Indian cultural transplant into the ever-expanding world of prisons. What if the answer is not continued warehousing of offenders violent and otherwise, but spiritual rehabilitation?

As one murderer remarks, he’s going to face God someday, and he’d like to do it having put himself on the right path.

So he sees Buddhist meditation as a way for him to become a better Christian.

Imagine that.

“The Dhamma Brothers” screens at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the Carver Theatre.


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