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The Dhamma Brothers

An overcrowded maximum-security prison is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program.

A printer-friendly version of this page 76 minutes
SDH Captioned>>

Directed by Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein and Andrew Kukura
Produced by Jenny Phillips and Anne Marie Stein
Co-Producer: Peter Broderick
Editor: Andrew Kukura
Cinematography: Jeremy Leach and Wah Ho Chan
Executive Producers: Geralyn Dreyfous, Nicole Guillemet, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein and Bestor Cram
Produced by Freedom Behind Bars Productions, LLC in association with Northern Lights Productions and The Lionheart Foundation

"One of the most sensitive expressions of hope...that I have seen in my career in criminal justice." Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General of Massachusetts
Behind the high security towers and double row of barbed wire and electrical fence at Donaldson Correction Facility dwells a host of convicts who will never see the light of day. But for some of these men, a spark is ignited when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding course of silent meditation lasting ten days.

The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates who enter into this arduous and intensive program. This film, with the power to dismantle stereotypes about men behind prison bars also, in the words of Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking), "gives you hope for the human race."

Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2008     Copyright Date: 2007
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-775-2     VHS ISBN: 1-59458-774-4

"The Dhamma Brothers is one of the most sensitive expressions of hope, capacity for change, and potential vehicles for institutional health that I have seen in my career in criminal justice. Inmates serving long sentences in one of the country's toughest state prisons experience the liberating effects of the Vipassana meditation program. The filmmakers provide a dramatic example of a safe and healthy correctional environment, not only for the inmates but also for the correction officers and all the people who must work within these institutions. The Dhamma Brothers points to an effective reentry program for even the most serious offenders in our society. Through the film we realize that inmates can accept responsibility for serious crimes, and attempt to engage in personal change even though it will not enable them to be released."
Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General of Massachusetts and senior counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP

"The stories of the Dhamma Brothers ring with the truth and power of their experiences, and offer the hope for renewal and rehabilitation within a dismal and punishment-oriented correctional system. It gives you hope for the human race."
Sister Helen Prejean, author, Dead Man Walking and recipient, 1996 Pax Christi Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award

"This is an absolutely compelling story of an astonishing treatment program with prison inmates that, against all odds, actually worked. The leaders of the program and the correctional officials open a door to the hearts and minds of a violent prison population, allowing us to see them at intimate range, while at the same time producing a remarkably positive influence on the atmosphere of the prison as a whole."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, author, No Ordinary Time and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

"An inspiring event of personal transformation through meditation in inmates at a maximum security prison. It will inspire everyone by the compelling story of personal growth in the harshest of conditions."
Richard Davidson, Director, Wisconsin Center for Affective Science, and Center for Mind-Body Interaction, University of Wisconsin

"In the Civil Rights Movement, we used the wisdom of India and Mohandas Gandhi, to create a discipline and philosophy of non-violence that would meet the needs of the American landscape. The Dhamma Brothers have taken their own passage to India and discovered a practice of meditation that guides them down their inner path toward freedom. Those of us who accept the philosophy of non-violence believe there is a spark of divinity within all of us. This film makes it plain that no human being - no matter how troubled his beginning, regardless of his race, color, nationality, or creed - should be considered beyond the reach of redemption. No one should be tossed away in a jail cell and forgotten as though their lives mean nothing. This film demonstrates that all some people need - even those we might consider the worst among us - is to be led toward their path to recovery, and when they are restored, their contribution to our society and the world is limitless."
Representative John Lewis, Georgia Congressman

"I found the film very interesting, in no small part because we hear from inmates at Donaldson all the time and know what a troubled facility it is...The message of the film with regard to the value of the mediation program to the individual inmates as well as the prison is a very important one and was communicated very well. The interviews with the inmates were excellent and certainly brought home Bryan Stevenson's message that a person is much more than the worst thing they ever did. The two leaders of the mediation program were very articulate in describing it and obviously very committed to Vipassana and to the prisoners. It was valuable to see the skepticism regarding to the program of the warden and corrections officers and their later reactions to it...I am very grateful for the opportunity to see the film."
Stephen Bright, President, Southern Center for Human Rights, J. Skelly Wright Fellow, Yale Law School

"The Dhamma Brothers poignantly demonstrates the resiliency of the prisoners who participated in a 10-day silent retreat in the prison's gym. It expertly interweaves the stories of a few prisoners in a way that helps us understand the causes and conditions of crime and punishment. We are fortunate to witness the deep desire for healing and change that brings the men to their first Vipassana orientation. The documentary does a great deal to un-do the demonization of men in prison that runs so deeply in popular culture. It reintroduces the notion of rehabilitation in an era of retribution and retaliation. As participants move through their introduction to Vipassana and later work to maintain their practice in the face of prison administrators' ban, we see the struggle of all humans to live a life consistent with our values and to move deeper in our understanding of ourselves."
Ed Mead, Founder of Prison Art Project, Organizer of Men Against Sexism at Walla Walla, Co-founder of Prison Legal News, Co-editor of Prison Focus Magazine

"Prisoners sitting together, meditating? For years stories have circulated about prisons in India that were transformed through the use of Vipassana meditative disciplines. Now, in this documentary, you can see how it was implemented here in the US in, of all places, an Alabama prison, resulting in lives that indeed seem changed. This documentary provides a service by introducing this approach to an American audience. It also helps to challenge popular assumptions about prisoners and their ability to change [and] may also help to counter the punitive approach to justice that is prevalent in American attitudes."
Howard Zehr, Professor, Sociology and Restorative Justice, Co-director, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, 2006 Community of Christ International Peace Award recipient

"The idea that 'nothing works' to rehabilitate prisoners is widespread, even though the researcher who penned that phrase later retracted it and ample research shows that a wide variety of programs produce positive results when properly matched with inmates' needs. The Dhamma Brothers provides an excellent example. The focus is rightly on the inmates - the childhoods, crimes and reflections - but the prison officials provide important context by discussing the problems of prison as warehouse. Ultimately, The Dhamma Brothers should not be seen as a documentary of a curious and unique event; it should be seen as a proof of concept and incitement for every state that sees itself at least as progressive and innovative as Alabama."
Dr. Paul Leighton, Professor of Criminology, Eastern Michigan University,

"[The Dhamma Brother's] eloquent testimony of newly discovered self-acceptance and awareness is a powerful argument for the transformative nature of meditation."
Library Journal

"Recommended for public or academic libraries collection materials about Buddhist meditation, corrections, and criminal rehabilitation."
Jessica Schomberg, Minnesota State University, Educational Media Reviews Online

"The word for `Enlightenment' in the Asian traditions is `mukti' or `moksha' which means freedom or liberation. If you thought taking a meditation technique that aims at such an enlightenment to prisoners in jails was a bit too literal, you would be wrong. For, the film The Dhamma Brothers captures brave attempts by the prisoners that even the unimprisoned would find difficult to carry out...Useful for students in psychology, sociology, law, cognitive science, Eastern philosophy and related disciplines."
Sushumna Kannan, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India, Anthropology Review Online

"The Dhamma Brothers is not just the story of a prison program, but also the human ability to accept responsibility for the most terrible of offenses. Ultimately an inspirational chronicle of hope, The Dhamma Brothers is highly recommended as an example of how meditative discipline can harness the positive side of the human spirit even in the most unlikely of places."
The Midwest Book Review

"An inspiring film about the potential for change in even the most seemingly incorrigible of human beings, this is highly recommended."
Video Librarian

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DVDs include public performance rights.

DVD Features
Includes scene selection, optional subtitles, and four short films: Meditation and the Brain (9:22), The Legal System (9:00), Practicing Vipassana (11:40), and Reflections from the Dhamma Brothers (18:30).

The Dhamma Brothers website
Film trailer
Vipassana Meditation Courses for Correction Facilities website
Short followup film on YouTube with some of the Dhamma Brothers

Awards and Festivals
National Council on Crime and Delinquency Pass Award
Best Documentary, Woods Hole Film Festival
Best of Festival, Western Psychological Association Film Festival
Best Documentary, Universal Martial Arts Film Festival, Paris
Runner-Up, Best Documentary, Rhode Island International Film Festival
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
Council on Foundations Film Festival
Northampton International Film Festival
Martha's Vineyard Film Festival
Green Mountain Film Festival
Sarasota Film Festival
Maui Film Festival
Bahamas International Film Festival
Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
Cucalorus Film Festival
Sidewalk Film Festival
European Spiritual Film Festival, Paris
United Nations Association Film Festival, Stanford
Global Peace Film Festival
Ellensburg Film Festival

American Studies
Conflict Resolution
Human Rights
Prison System
Social Justice

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... more Reviews

"Like all compelling documentaries, The Dhamma Brothers is both informative and personally arresting...Intentionally or not, [the film] offers a profound meditation on hope and how it might, or might not, be fostered...This documentary would enhance any number of feminist courses in areas such as sociology, religion, race and racism, American studies, and the justice system. It is highly recommended."
Krista Hughes, Thirdspace: A Journal of Feminist Theory and Culture

"This provocative film...candidly documents the mixed emotions and institutional conflicts aroused by the introduction of a Buddhist practice in a predominantly Christian prison."
Jeanette Catsoulis, New York Times

"It takes you on a thrilling and hopeful voyage through a very dark place."
Andrew O'Hehir,

"Who would ever believe this Alabama hellhole would one day foster one of the most progressive rehabilitation programs in the world? Strange, but true...It's a powerful journey...A truly inspirational piece of documentary filmmaking."
Ken Fox, TV Guide's Movie Guide

"Real-life Shawshank Redemption."
Ronnie Scheib, Variety

"An inspiring documentary."
V.A. Musetteo, New York Post

"A provocative portrait of innovative thinking in a penal system badly in need of reform."
Frank Schneck, The Hollywood Reporter

"Unusually effective at finding the humanity inside men usually reviled as monsters."
Joshua Land, Time Out New York

"Intriguing...Fierce irony and dark hope...Powerful honesty and clarity."
Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times

Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle

"We need a range of approaches to reach individuals, and this may be one of them."
The Sentencing Project

"A wonderful, powerful film. A rare inspiration to all of us."
Richard Gere

"A convincing documentary that proves the cathartic value of meditation in the lives of these prison inmates who share their experiences of inner peace and growing compassion."
Spirituality and Practice

"...Ably demonstrates the transformative efficacy of meditation on even the most unlikely candidates. The results are pretty miraculous."

"Seek this film out. I went through various emotional changes while watching this, but it all began and ended with happiness. Dhamma Brothers give the viewer faith in humanity, that we all really do have Buddha-nature, regardless of the mistakes we have made...I congratulate the teachers and the filmmakers for taking on such a significant task, you are all truly inspiring, please keep up the great work."
Nate DeMontigny, Precious Metal blog

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