SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day Four

 I highly recommend Kumaré as an example of a well-constructed documentary which also carries an important message.

Today we have two documentaries which do one of the things that documentaries do best: take us inside a subculture and let us see how it functions. Vikram Gandhi takes a personal approach in Kumaré, which looks at the world of yogic gurus and those who follow them, while with Fightville, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker take us inside the world of mixed martial arts at the minor-league level.
L. Ron Hubbard may never have actually said that the best way to make a million dollars is to start a religion, but he should have. Or somebody should have said it, because when it comes to scams and separating people from their money, fake religions do seem to have the inside track. The potential for religious leaders to mislead and defraud their followers is the main point of Kumaré, a documentary directed by Vikram Gandhi who also stars as the title character. Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, as an adult Gandhi questioned the Hindu rituals in which he had been raised, and also the sincerity of many who claim to be gurus, both in the United States and in India.
Gandhi decided to become a guru himself and see what he could get away with. He invented the persona of “Kumaré,” let his hair and beard grow long, made up some fake yoga moves, and acquired some eye-catching robes, jewelry, and a walking staff. Most importantly, he adopted the voice of his grandmother, speaking in a high-pitched, sing-songy manner with a marked accent. He then headed to Phoenix and set out to acquire yoga students, accompanied by a film crew whose cover story is that they are documenting Kumaré (technically true). He also spends time visiting with others practicing the same trade (but who presumably have not taken on their guru persona temporarily and for the sake of making a movie about it), including one fellow who claims to be an “acoustic theologian” and a couple who claims to teach “attraction theory.”
Kumaré gradually acquires disciples and seems to have a generally positive influence on their lives. (Note: It’s not clear from the film if he accepted money for his services.) To his credit, Kumaré also did his very best, short of completely blowing his cover, to clue people in to the scam. He even tells one person that he is a film director and pushes the limits of absurdity by getting a man to pray before an altar bearing pictures of Barak Obama, Kumaré and Osama Bin Ladin. He also tells people his true belief, which is that they should not seek out gurus but should look within, because everyone has the power to control and change their own lives. I won’t spoil how it all works out, but I can highly recommend this film as an example of a well-constructed documentary which also carries an important message and which, somewhat surprisingly given how the story began, is not entirely anti-religion.
In Fightville, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker turn away from war (GunnerPalace, Bulletproof Salesman) to a more ritualized type of combat: mixed martial arts (MMA), also known as cage fighting. They focus on the minor leagues of the sport in and around Lafayette, La.; the film’s star is a gifted young fighter named Dustin Poirier who trains at the Gladiators Academy under the authority Tim Credeur, a former MMA fighter himself. Poirier’s attraction to the sport, besides his hope of landing a big payday, is that it offers him a disciplined way to channel his anger: His mother notes that in a childhood fight Dustin injured another boy so badly the police became involved. Promoter Gill Guillery plays an important supporting role and puts himself on the line as much as the fighters. At one point he jokes that if Poirier’s match (preceded by a substantial undercard) in the Cajun Dome doesn’t sell enough tickets he’ll lose his house.
Fightville is a highly enjoyable film which will please MMA fans, because it glorifies the MMA culture rather than asking hard questions about it—for instance, how frequently are their serious injuries, what is the cumulative effect of all those blows to the head, and is the sport really so free of the corruption which has so damaged public interest in conventional boxing? This is not an investigative documentary but a celebration of a subculture which is aided by an excellent technical package, including a pulsing soundtrack, expert action photography and a nice sense of how to present meaningful excerpts from fights in order to build tension to a climax. | Sarah Boslaugh

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