Feature films about teachers who help troubled students turn their lives around are a dime a dozen, but documentaries on the subject are considerably rarer, in part because it's hard to predict the results of a teacher's methods, and then capture the "before" stage that makes the "after" stage meaningful. And while Eilona Ariel and Atelet Menahemi do try to both explain and dramatize the "before" stage in their brief documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, they're mostly defeated by their own subject: It's hard to find drama in a wholly peaceful situation, and harder yet to make silence and lack of motion enthralling.
Doing Time, Doing Vipassana looks inside India's famously immense Tihar Prison, a sprawling camplike structure with some 10,000 inmates. According to Ariel and Menahemi, the place was once known for its vicious violence and corruption, predicated on the belief that harsh treatment was a necessary part of the rehabilitation process, as only beatings and abuse would keep criminals properly frightened of jail time. That philosophy changed in the early 1990s, when former policewoman Kiran Bedi took over Tihar, and brought in instructors to teach Vipassana meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique calling for 10 days of silence, austere living, and lengthy sessions of inner exploration. The results were striking—the initial Vipassana courses were aimed at the guards, who became less aggressive, while inmates taking the follow-up courses not only became gentler, but lost their desire for revenge, had profound emotional and spiritual breakthroughs, and in some notable cases, reconciled with their victims.
The story is compelling, though it suffers somewhat from talking-head-doc syndrome and blue-sky simplicity. Ariel and Menahemi could hardly be expected to seek out and expose a downside to Buddhist meditation, but they present it as such a one-size-fits-all instant panacea that it's impossible to avoid wondering whether there were any bumps in the road. And their attempts to liven up fixed shots of meditating crowds with inner-vision montages, or to dramatize the prison's early violence mostly through close-ups of glowering men, mostly feel stiff and gimmicky. Still, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana accomplishes its meager goals of arguing for prisoner rehabilitation over prisoner abuse, and chronicling a daring experiment that had startling results. The film is as low-key and internal as the meditation it touts, and nearly as uplifting.