South India’s Vedic monastery Arsha Vidya Gurukulam — the subject of the Edmonton-made documentary Gurukulam — is led by its charming 84-year-old founding Swami Dayananda Saraswati, seen here in orange.
When: Sunday — Opening music by violinist Gautam Karnik at 3:30 p.m., film 4 p.m.
Where: Metro Cinema, 8712 109th St.
Tickets: (matinee prices) $10 adults, $6 students/seniors
It’s fitting a film about Hinduism would have no conflict.
Despite its rule-breaking lack of antagonists, Gurukulam is anything but amateurish. The cinema-verite, feature-length documentary’s charms run as deep as the access its co-directors had to the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam ashram in South India, led by charming 84-year-old founder Dayananda Saraswati.
As student and scholar, 40-year-old co-director Neil Dalal has known the ashram’s spiritual leader for nearly 20 years, which helped he and co-director Jillian Elizabeth gain access for filming. Dalal moved to Edmonton from New York in 2009 to take a job as a philosophy professor at University of Alberta. Elizabeth, who happens to be his wife, came with him.
While anyone in Hollywood will tell you a movie must establish its conflict early, its characters struggling and growing from point A to point B, the documentary rejects the formula. It’s experiential and immersive, not popcorn pulp.
Elizabeth is fully aware of this. “One of the things that’s happened in documentary,” she assesses, “(is) there’s more and more of an emulation of fiction. Especially these character-driven documentaries — they’re really over-constructed.”
Conversely, Gurukulam is patient revelation, meditative and subtle in a way that mirrors its subjects.
Elizabeth, now 37, first went to India when she was 20 to study film and anthropology through New York University.
“As an outsider spending time in India, you’re going on a journey,” she says of the stereotype of finding oneself there. “As a white woman in India, you have a particular kind of experience, and that can be very challenging, and actually part of self-growth,” she says, laughing. “That makes one in a different way receptive to the teachings.”
Elizabeth compares Gurukulam to her previous docs, Whatever It Takes and On Coal River — one about a community in the south Bronx, the other about the disastrous effects of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. “In both,” she says, “the people really wanted their stories told. It was so easy to find people to share, they wanted the world to know.
“This community was completely different.”
Notes Dalal, “They’re just doing their own thing: study, move through their spiritual path. And they didn’t really care to be distracted by a camera.”
This shaped the film’s format, which relies on long, quiet shots of what an average student might see, from ants parading across a wire to the daily chanting and rituals.
The process of filming over 10 weeks was taxing and complicated for the couple, some students asking not to be filmed. And the story was hard to pin down. Elizabeth favoured capturing authentic moments over sit-down interviews.
“I have the filmmaking background and Neil is a scholar, so he knew what to expect. Our relationship, we were quite surprised how well it was working. It was really collaborative.”
So did the pair reach enlightenment?
“In the editing process I feel I really did grow a lot,” says Elizabeth, “because I was spending so much time with the material. I remember sitting with the transcripts and saying, ‘Oh my gosh! I think I got it! Kind of the basic understanding I thought I had before but really didn’t.”
Says Dalal. “I think a lot of our growth was in the struggle, the struggle of making a film and how complex and hard it is. Because of what we were filming, we were always more mindful of that struggle.