The movie ‘Ashram’, recently uploaded on YouTube, still creates headlines after 30 years
During the late seventies, a German film maker called Wolfgang Dobrowolny came to the Shree Rajneesh Ashram in Pune and astonishingly managed to get permission to film the Encounter group and Leela group process, and also scenes of ashram life. When the movie was shown in Germany, hot debates and much interest was forthcoming. In February 1980, Der Spiegel published one of their typical sarcastic reviews, entitled ‘With the Guru on a Tour de Trance’. Also, thousands of Germans booked a trip to Pune and – a wild guess – probably 99% of them became sannyasins.
Reading that review in the here and now made me laugh out loud; it is really funny – so for all you German-speaking lot, here’s the hysterical historical article.
We are not done yet. Today, August 1, 2011, the New York Times published a review dated November 13, 1981 of said movie because it has been newly released by Libra Films and is being shown in New York! Knock yourself out:
Life at an Ashram, Search for Inner Peace
By Janet Maslin
Published: November 13, 1981
At the start of ‘Ashram’, a title announces that this film has been condemned by the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, even though Wolfgang Dobrowolny, who wrote and directed ‘Ashram’, was a Rajneesh disciple at the time the film was made. Mr. Dobrowolny may not have intended any treachery, but it’s understandable that the Rajneesh organization would be upset by even a straightforward, unbiased film record of its activities. That is largely what ‘Ashram’, which opens today at the Waverly theater, appears to be.
The group’s practices, including therapy sessions in the nude and very violent encounter sessions, cannot help but look foolish on the screen. When they are seen writhing on the floor in the manner of ‘Altered States’, for example, the devotees are bound to appear more debased than enlightened. But these people, when interviewed at calmer moments, also say credibly that they’ve never been happier in their lives, and they have a look of contentment to prove it. Mr. Dobrowolny’s film, which is valuable chiefly for the bizarre spectacle it presents, also poses a provocative riddle. Will a complete lack of inhibition lead the way to wisdom? To put it another way, can inner peace be achieved by methods that, on the surface, appear absurd?
The film’s answer is a resounding ”Why not?” Though it mildly mocks the guru and his tactics at times – for instance, when it labels his new cream-colored Mercedes-Benz ”one of his jokes that cannot be understood in a poor country like India” – it also offers evidence of the disciples’ serenity. ”Ashram” was filmed in Poona, India, where large numbers of well-off seekers come to learn from a man whose teachings – at least on this film’s evidence – are none too remarkable. And yet any of these students is liable to experience ecstasy if the guru so much as touches his or her brow.
”Ashram,” which has been filmed and assembled in very ragged fashion, offers a candid glimpse of life inside this community. The place seems ruled by a gentle but very firm hand, as witnessed by a sign near the schedule of lectures, ”Friends, it is not possible to leave the discourse before it is over.” For a relatively high fee, visitors have the opportunity to hear the master, mingle with one another and experience Rolfing, primal-scream sessions and some of the ashram’s more idiosyncratic therapies. A great deal of physical interaction is encouraged, leading the disciples to drop their inhibitions about violence and about sex.
Scenes of these therapies have the mood of other movies’ madhouse episodes. In one scene, a large number of people are found squirming, shouting, embracing and recoiling from one another as though their movements had been choreographed by Ken Russell. In another, a group pillow-fight meant to release violent instincts becomes a naked freefor-all, accompanied by the most piercing screams of fear and rage. During the course of this session, a narrator tells us, one woman was very nearly raped; indeed, when she’s seen on camera, this woman appears to be hugely distressed. But when she’s interviewed later, it turns out that she has been at the ashram for a long while and is very content. The violent therapy, she says, has helped her to overcome her fear of men.
A narrator must explain what has happened to the woman because Mr. Dobrowolny’s footage is often so poorly shot, and so muddled, that it’s hard to understand. His film is also unsubtitled and multilingual, and this woman happens to speak German. Because her story is told only superficially, and because her experience is not exactly universal, it is not clear what can be made of it. But Mr. Dobrowolny has certainly captured a moment that’s odd and troubling, an emotional excess that’s not usually seen on the screen.
To Inner Peace
ASHRAM, directed and produced by Wolfgang Dobrowolny; a Mu-Film; released by Libra Films. At the Waverly 1, the Avenue of the Americas and West Third Street. Running time: 83 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Peter Claussen, Friedemann Kliesch, Kirsten Liesenborghs and Wilhelm Schulz
Update: all videos on YouTube have been taken down for copyright reasons.