The Dhamma Brothers

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Balcony Releasing

NEW YORK -- Representing the sort of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale that that seems rife for dramatization, this documentary relates the unlikely tale of a program at an Alabama maximum-security prison in which hardened convicts participated in a 10-day Buddhist meditation ritual.

While "The Dhamma Brothers," co-directed by Andrew Kukura, Anne Marie Stein and Jenny Phillips (the latter of whom is the cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist who largely was responsible for the program's inception) presents a provocative portrait of innovative thinking in a penal system badly in need of reform.

Admittedly more interesting for sociological than cinematic reasons, the film is roughly hewn and sometimes less than gripping in purely narrative terms. And the decision of the filmmakers to provide crude dramatizations of the crimes committed by the four murderers who are its chief subjects is more redolent of cheesy true-crime television than a serious docu.

But there's no denying the fascination of the subject matter, relating how a group of inmates at Alabama's Donaldson Correctional Facility were allowed to participate in a strict course following the precepts of Vipassana meditation. Lasting 10 days, the course involved the convicts participating in a strict program of silent meditation and prayer that was intended to reduce the horrifically high level of violent unrest that permeated the prison.

The film chiefly concentrates on four of the roughly three dozen participants, all hardened murderers who provide compelling testimony of their mainly positive reactions to the retreat conducted by two teachers who lived at the prison for its duration. Also included are interviews with guards and prison officials, as well as, more amusingly, several local citizens who provide rather unenlightened views about the program and Buddhism in general.
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