Vikshepa

Mental Distractions

16 May 2020

Documentary film festival

Spring is usually the time for the DocAviv documentary film festival in Tel Aviv, but this year, of course, there's the pandemic, so they have postponed it till September and, in the meantime, are streaming some films that one can watch from home.

Dorit ordered us four films, three of which we've watched already. The first was "Kingmaker", about former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcus. We also attended a Q and A with the filmmakers about that. It's a good film, if a bit long, and reaches the inevitable conclusions about money, corruption and power. What was new to me was that the Marcus dynasty are still aiming for a comeback, which seems incredible. In my sort of world, their downfall and the "people power" revolution of Ferdinand Marcus's successor Cory Aquino was hailed as one of the victories for nonviolent action; Gene Sharp type material.

The second film was "The Human Element" (2018) which is based on the photographic work of James Balog. This was a very successful film, in that it both told a personal story and the growing consequences of climate change in the US. It's structured around the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire, and what happens when a fifth rogue element, Human Beings, add to that mix. But the point of the film is that humans can also reverse the negative changes if they want to, so it tries to give room for a little optimism. For example, it shows a plan for a disused open coal mine - a huge dead area - to be turned into a solar energy installation. In one sad sequence of the film it shows the effects of air pollution on asthmatic children at a special school where they need to interrupt their studies in order to take their medicines or go on inhalers. In another, it shows what is happening to the people on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake bay, which stand to become among the first refugees of climate change. Large swathes of the island are already awash.

The third film was "The Ashram Children: I am No Body, I Have No Body" (2019), by an Israeli filmmaker who, during his childhood, spent a part of every year in an ashram - the Anandavadi ashram in Kerala. During the film he embarks on a personal journey to meet several other children he knew at the ashram as a child. He interviews each of them about their memories of the experience. Several others refuse to meet with him, or at the last minute, after he's arrived in town, find some excuse not to meet. Others issues dire warnings against making the film and tried to scare him away from continuing. His mother too voices strong opposition. But he was traumatized; he needed years of counselling to overcome the damage done to him by "growing up in a cult" (as he experienced it) and being encouraged to lie to his school mates back home about where he had been.

The interviews with those who had gone through the same experiences are revelatory. He himself, and one of the others he speaks to, haven't entirely broken free of the spell of "Gurudev"*. One of the interviewees describes his long personal journey of gaining self-confidence after growing up with feelings of inferiority. After spending 10 years as a bagger in a supermarket, even fearing a promotion to the position of cashier, he finally works up the confidence to attend college. Today,he is a successful academic, the author of a forthcoming major study of religion. But it wasn't an easy journey, and when it comes to the point of speaking about his parents, and the attitudes that may have motivated them, he breaks down.

When one of these children grows up she returns to the ashram, shaking with fear, but needing to express her anger and reprobation of the teacher. When she is able to do so, she realizes how this godman that she grew up to fear is completely inconsequential; a kind of Wizard of Oz figure, whose only response to her is to turn away and leave the room.

The children grew up, it seems, neglected by their parents, fearing the guru, while being governed by strange beliefs, fears and an elaborate set of purity rules. One of them tells how, as a child, he wondered whether, if Gurudev asked his parents to drown him in the river, they would agree to that. Looking back on the experience, one of the interviewees points out that regardless of the verity of adwaitic philosophy being pumped into them, it is completely inappropriate to impart it to children who are just discovering their sense of selfhood and identity.

*"Gurudev" is Sri Adwayananda Sri K. Padmanabha Menon - the son of the much better known Vedantic heavy-weight, Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon.

Tags: film
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