Poster for Dhamma Brothers movieLast night I sat in the same audience as Spike Jonze and Rivers Cuomo to enjoy the LA premiere of The Dhamma Brothers. It’s a documentary about an experimental meditation program that was run in an Alabama prison in 2002.

Inspired by the success of a Vipassana meditation program at a prison in India, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment, initiates a course in Donaldson Correctional, a maximum security prison in the heart of the Bible Belt. Vipassana is about as intense as meditation gets. The volunteer prisoners spend ten days in ‘noble silence’ — no speaking to fellow meditators — plus sensory deprivation and a very regimented day, even for prisoners.

The program forces people to deal with themselves, to recognize how physical impulses are driving their behavior. The transformation is plain on the faces of the men. For a few of them, we get some backstory as to why they are in prison — many with life sentences. These are violent people in a violent environment. But after the sessions they have a peacefulness that is quite inspiring. They also find themselves bonded to each other in the experience. They continue to meet and meditate.

Then the Chaplain services gets wind and feels these meditation sessions are a threat to Christian values. They shut the sessions down and forbid ‘The Dhamma Brothers’ to meet and meditate. After a few years, a change of regime at the prison reverses this and the program, thanks to this documentary, is being tried in other prisons.

The soundtrack has some amazing coups for an indie doc, I gather thanks to the connections of Rivers Cuomo. Overall, the movie is very inspiring. There are numerous times where dramatic episodes aren’t fully dramatized. I get the sense that cameras were banned from several parts of the Vipassana sessions, and that a glancing mention to ‘younger guys’ making trouble glosses over what may have been some evidence that the technique doesn’t work for everyone.

After the movie, I learned some things about ‘educational distribution’ from The Dhamma Brothers‘ distribution strategist, Peter Broderick, and from Robert Bahar, another documentary filmmaker. I was unaware that many documentaries do an ‘educational window’ after or concurrent with the festival circuit, and only then do theatrical or home video. These windows used to be five years (!) but now the standard is closer to three years. This allows a filmmaker (and the educational distributors) to sell a movie at $250 instead of $25. Of course, you’d want to create curriculum around the movie. Teachers want to teach, not write the curriculum, so they are willing to pay the premium. The movie also comes with a public performance license, since technically schools aren’t supposed to show movies to classes without paying for the privilege. (Yes, even documentary filmmakers have piracy problems.)

Dhamma Brothers website
Book of letters from the Dhamma Brothers on Amazon