Alabama's Donaldson Correctional Facility houses some of Alabama's most notorious hardcore criminals, many of whom have no hope of release before they die. The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary about what happened when an intensive 10-day silent meditation program was introduced to Donaldson's inmates in 2002. The film explores tensions between well-meaning lefties who pushed the meditation and the conservative Southern prison system, which eventually banned the program after Donaldson's chaplain complained it had been "turning all his inmates into Buddhists." (Four years later, the meditation program has been reinstated.)
In broader terms, The Dhamma Brothers provides a fascinating look at crime, the prison system, the South, and the power of meditation to bring about peace in even the most troubled minds. But it's not all hippie and feel-good: Graphic descriptions of the meditating criminals' reasons for being in prison ("It was a slaughter, the guy's neck was cut 16 times, almost decapitated") push the documentary beyond the obvious and into challenging territory.
Meanwhile, the recurring image of a roomful of meditating prisoners is haunting. The group of prisoners came to form lasting, supportive friendships in prison following their meditative experience, and began holding daily meditation sessions to keep their karma and spirits up. Some gave up their participation in prison gangs, and wardens noticed others became noticeably better behaved.
But ultimately, the film shies away from skepticism a little more than it should—despite quoting the prison's superintendent (who thinks some of the inmates may be following the age-old corrections mantra, "Fake it 'til you make it," referring to their participation in the program as a chance to eventually score probation), The Dhamma Brothers could do with a bit more objectivity. These are killers, after all, and when the credits roll, one realizes there's an uncomfortable possibility that the film's directors—and in turn, its audience—might have been sucked in, too, by a bunch of manipulative killers mugging for the camera. It's something to meditate on afterward, perhaps, but it's hardly reason enough to avoid a film this interesting.