The Dhamma Brothers

2008, Movie, NR, 76 mins


For years, the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, had a reputation for being one of the country's most dangerous prisons: Far from offering any kind of rehabilitation, Donaldson was generally considered by corrections officers and inmates alike as a mere breeding ground for further violence. So who would ever believe this Alabama hell-hole would one day foster one of the most progressive rehabilitation programs in the world? Strange, but true. In 2002, inspired by a successful experiment in Tihar Prison outside of New Dehli, India (and the subject of the 1997 documentary DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA), Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, decided to try introducing the teaching of Vipassana, a centuries-old practice of meditation based on the teachings of the Buddha known as the Dhamma, into Donaldson. Hopefully, the inmates who go through the program would learn how to get in touch with the physical sensations that control their behavior, recognize them for what they are and, hopefully, control them. Dr. Cavanaugh knew he was setting himself -- and the inmates -- for a challenge: Donaldson sits right in the heart of the Bible Belt where Jesus Christ, not the Buddha, is king. In addition, the teaching of Vipassana begins with a rigorous ten-day course of total silence and intense mediation that forbids any contact with the outside world. It's during this "residential course" that the inmates would need to find the courage to fully face their lives, their crimes and most frightening of all, themselves. This short but beautifully done documentary from Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein follows the experiment at Donaldson, from the arrival of the Vipassana teachers, orientation meetings, the transformation of a large prison room into a kind of Buddhist monastery and the rigorous 10-day course. The immediately results are intriguing, but they're hardly the end of the story: The inmates must then return to the general population and lives that had only two weeks earlier been filled with violence and crime. It's a powerful journey, and along the way we get to know a number of Donaldson's inmates, the details of the crimes they committed and how a meditation technique from the other side of the world would change their lives forever. It's a truly inspirational piece of documentary filmmaking bolstered by a fine soundtrack featuring the music of Low, New Order and Sigur Ros. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Dhamma Brothers
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