Monday, April 7, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Inmates Find Inner Peace thru Meditation in Death Row Documentary

A maximum security prison isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to find a bunch of men mutely contemplating their navels and the meaning of life. But that’s what we find Alabama’s Donaldson State Penitentiary, where Warden Stephen Bullard opted to allow Jonathan Crowley to introduce an East Indian brand of meditation known as Vipassana to volunteers plucked from among the institution’s most hardened criminals.
The participants adopting the ascetic regimen understood that the initiation meant that for ten days straight they would not be allowed to talk, watch TV, use a phone, have sex or imbibe intoxicants. Those able to meet the challenge discovered that they emerged from the program calmer and with a new sense of purpose when they rejoined the general population.
The Dhamma Brothers, directed by Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein examines the before and after mindsets of the cons converted to the Eastern spiritual path. This fascinating film focuses on a quartet of contrite individuals, starting with Edward Curry Johnson, a once-promising student-athlete who was being scouted by pro baseball when, against his better judgment, he foolishly took part in a gang-related homicide.
Then, there’s Death Row inmate Grady Bankhead, who confesses here to being a co-conspirator in a plot which left its victim with a severed head and a torso mutilated by about 80 stab wounds. I’ll spare you the details of the felonies committed by Benjamin “OB” Oryang or Rick Smith, but trust me, they’re no choir boys either.
Yet, they all made amazing transformations via Vipassana, despite the fact that none have much hope of ever being paroled. Based on their mild-mannered demeanors, it seems that they really have come around to accepting responsibility for their horrendous deeds while making peace with still having to pay their debt to society.
Unfortunately, midway through the movie, we learn that Alabama’s Commissioner of Corrections ordered the program disbanded when he learned that it was turning so many in the jail from Christianity to a mysterious religious practice he considered occult. Afterall, ‘Bama is in the heart of the Bible Belt, and as one unsympathetic local yokel says, “I don’t believe in Buddhism or any type of witchcraft.”
Perhaps the picture’s most astute observation is made by a concerned counselor who points to the Dhamma Brothers as “proof that people don’t need to be incarcerated for their entire lives to be appropriately punished for their crimes.” A timely argument to give cons a second chance, given the fact that the country simply can no longer afford to keep so many hopeless souls locked behind bars.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 76 minutes
Studio: Balcony Releasing

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