THE DHAMMA BROTHERSNR
The Dhamma Brothers is the name given to the inmates who participate in the novel rehabilitation program in this enlightening film. Co-directors Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein and Andrew Kukura show the positive effects of the Buddhist meditation method Vipassana in the Donaldson Correction Facility in Alabama, which may very well inspire other prisons to take up the idea.
This feature covers a lot during a relatively short running time. Starting in 2002, several inmates are introduced to the Vipassana at Donaldson, the first prison in North America to import the program, which was started in Indian correctional facilities. The convicts bond over the ten-day course, which highlights the benefits of silent meditation. At the end, most of them achieve peace within themselves, despite the fact they know they will never be released from prison.
Shortly after the first Vipassana, outside forces, particularly the churches in the community, push officials to shut down what they perceive as an effort to influence religious beliefs. It takes several years and much persuasion to re-institute the program at Donaldson. By that time, some of the first Dhamma Brothers had been transferred to other facilities, but the ones remaining are glad to see their facilitators return and reveal they have kept up with their new, spiritual outlook on life.
The uplifting message of The Dhamma Brothers should make this film a useful tool for prison-reform advocates. If nothing else, it might change stereotypical perceptions about convicts and prison life. Of course, there are those who would never be moved by such a film since it is about murderers and other hard-bitten criminals, but The Dhamma Brothers could contribute to the debate about rehabilitation vs. the death penalty.
The filmmakers allow for multiple points of view—from the inmates and their families to the prison officials to the facilitators. Those community members resistant to the program outside the prison are given short shrift, but it is notable that even they are included to any extent. Only the religious leaders and politicians are missing, but Phillips, Stein and Kurkura must have assumed we’ve all heard their platitudes before.
The one person not referenced who should have been is Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, who courageously started the Vipassana program in India’s Tihar Prison. Her story is detailed in Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (made more than a decade ago, yet only recently released in the U.S.), but viewers shouldn’t have to see both films in order to learn who was first behind such an important project.