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By Rory L. Aronsky | January 16, 2006

At $21 a month, The Spiritual Cinema Circle is a hefty risk as it’s the DVD equivalent of receiving your favorite magazine every month. It may be a good issue or bad issue, but it’s still an issue and in fact, new two-disc sets are shipped every month, with the intent of provoking discussion about spirituality in all its forms, which co-founder Stephen Simon clearly supports in his introductions to the short films and “Ayurveda” documentary in volume five. The Circle is not pushy and doesn’t force viewers to seriously consider an agenda set forth by any of the movies. Simon gently suggests a certain thought to consider, such as in the restless “Right Here, Right Now” where he pegs the theme as Karma, and what it does as we encounter many people during the day. This short from India isn’t very good, because writer/director/co-DP Anand Gandhi treats the camera as if it’s simply the means to go quickly to an end, not taking in what’s all around. In passing the story from one character to another and never doubling back, he slightly speeds up the footage and it’s even worse with slanted camera angles. India is usually seen through wide shots from Bollywood, coupled with songs and dancing, so this is a rarity. But imagine it as an extended music video and indeed, there are two songs interspersed throughout, thankfully not sung by the characters. “Right Here, Right Now” at least does well in setting off the intended theme for whatever month volume five debuted in, that of journeys. And I suppose in spirituality, it’s all a set of journeys anyway, in figuring out who we are at a certain times in our lives, what we want to embrace, whether we believe it’s good for our own soul and emotions, but here, it’s made more apparent.

“A Mile in My Shoes” is next, set during the Depression, and filmed in the hills of California, where a run-down shack and abandoned 1930s car serve as the respective homes for Elizabeth (Janelle Ginestra) and her mother, and Benjamin (Markhum Salisbury, Jr.) a black man from Tennessee who’d rather forget where he came from, presumably because of the poverty that swept the nation and drove him toward California. It’s all set in as a memory, with the older Elizabeth narrating about how she was affected during that time and how Benjamin changed her life, in simple advice that served her well throughout her life as a photographer. The director, Denise C. Plumb, dabbles in what has always been a comedic anomaly, that of one character telling another that he or she doesn’t want to go wherever the other character suggests and in the next shot, there they are. Elizabeth tells Benjamin that she visits her father’s grave every Thursday and suggests that he go with her to “meet” her father, but he gives this long-winded speech about it not being appropriate, that visits like that should remain in the family. The next shot shows Elizabeth at the graveyard, and Benjamin approaches the site. How did she convince him? What could she have possibly said that would unhook him from his convictions? For Plumb, it’s just a way to keep the two characters together, but it’s always been a weak method. People affecting other people throughout their lives has always been well-known. We may have family members who do that to us, either inspire us to be a certain way or have us promise ourselves to never be like that. And especially in our celebrity culture, people are heavily affected. I remember the trend of little handbags with dogs inside and here in Southern California, I see it often. Even with the sticky sentimental feeling of this, Plumb has reason to be proud of her work because she keeps up the appearances of the valleys of Southern California. There are areas like this that are still used, and in fact, CBS’ upcoming David Mamet/Shawn Ryan drama “The Unit” uses these barren locations as foreign countries. Even after two and a half years of residence in Southern California, it’s still a rush to see various locations from home on camera because at times, as with the second episode of “Weeds” the location looks even better.

“Flip Flotsam” is my favorite short of the set, because of the whimsical journey flip flops take from their creation in Mombasa, near Kenya, to Lamu where they are worn by everyone and discarded when they are worn out, to the island of Kiwayu where they wash up and are actually recycled in a unique way. It’s astonishing to see the creation of these flip-flops and a trip which shows that even when we travel to other states and countries, what we wear travels as well. And while it may not go through various cycles of use as extraordinary as the flip-flops, it’s still something to think about, perhaps in the new uses of what we recycle, perhaps in our own emotional odysseys. This should somehow be seen more widely.

Co-founder Simon is also a shrewd, perceptive businessman. He’s well aware that he has a platform in which he can talk about anything he wants regarding spirituality, in the context of whatever movie he’s presenting. So while he does not provide an introduction for “Indigo – Behind the Seen [sic]” (intentional, because by 2004, many people saw this movie), he’s all around this documentary on the making of this indie film, as he directed it, a story of psychic children. It’s a good dissection on the passion of an indie project, as well as some bits on the technical side of filmmaking, along with the obligatory interviews and even footage from the screening and awards ceremony at the Santa Fe Film Festival. True that many indie films won’t have the cameras “Indigo” had (this had a budget of $500,000), but it does show well what it takes to create a movie.

“Yin” is the last short film of this set, an animated story of finding the other soul who fits you, like yin and yang, which is exactly what transpires, as white comma-like figures approach the black ones and eventually, all of them link together and float upward to the dark sky as stars, save for two white figures who can’t find what the other ones have. They don’t fit and therefore can’t end up in the sky. But they’ll fit another way. Everyone eventually fits, whether it is with another person or simply being satisfied with their own lives.

The feature of these discs is a documentary, “Ayurveda: Art of Being” which will most definitely provoke discussion on what medicine can do, whether it’s only the doctors of big cities and prominent countries who can do the most good for the world. In India, there is Ayurveda, a healing practice that is performed across the countries, where medicines are made from plants, the bark of trees, and where mud is used to cover a patient, after which the patient sits in the sun for an hour and after the mud is removed, it purportedly shows the problems the patient is having with their body. Called a Mud Scan, we can’t be too sure that it works. After all, could those three abrasions on the man’s body have been caused by the mud drying? We’re taken to different practitioners to see how they not only use their skills, but how they acquired them, and we watch them diagnose patients and give them the proper medicine to cure circulation problems, arthritis, and other troubles of the body. Filmmaker Pan Nalin drifts to different practitioners and just when we’d want a definitive answer as to whether a patient is doing better based on these unusual practices, we never see that patient again. The only one we see who has had considerable success is a young girl who cannot walk right and much later in the film, there is she, bow-legged, but walking. “Ayurveda” doesn’t require belief in the practices, but it does bring up a lot of questions about the nature of medicine and doctors. The Western way of medicine is called “allopathy” and a lot of patients who go to these other doctors in India find that allopathy has failed them, that they were unable to help them get rid of their ailments, including, for one man, cancer. And what we find with that man is that through Ayurveda, 80% of the cancer was removed and through a scan done by the Western practice of medicine, no traces of the cancer could be found. So if these men, who are devoted to this practice, can do what’s claimed here, does that mean we’d all have to travel to India in order to be cured of all our ills? During a few parts when the plants, roots, and bark are being prepared, some being pounded into powder, I wondered. What about AIDS? What about any rare diseases in the United States that aren’t easily classified by doctors here, those diseases in which the doctors find that they can’t do anything, or that they don’t see anything wrong? I believe the practice of Ayurveda should be studied (and for India, it has been ongoing for thousands of years) by Western medicine, but hopefully with an open mind and far less cynicism than would be given to it at the start. If some of the world’s suffering can be alleviated by this, then surely it can be looked into even further. But then with that sentiment, there’s a whole pile of complications that would take time to sift through, from who would be able to receive these treatments, to payment (of course), to how it would be practiced. Standards too, I’m sure. Maybe it would work in the Western world, maybe not. But it’s out there and fortunately, you can watch this yourself as it is available separately from this set, on its own DVD.

All of this is a worthwhile experience if you’re into spirituality, meditation, and whatever else goes with it. For $21 a month, you should definitely be into it. It’s passionate, and it’s certainly one of the most creative groupings of films that I’ve seen, but I’m sure it won’t be for everyone. If you take spirituality seriously, go for it.

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