Sebastian Lange, the director of Shadows of Paradise, is part of a generation born to followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the leader of what turned into a worldwide movement. Lange has been living outside the TM movement for over 20 years now; however, he is still fascinated by the faith and certainty of its followers, who are devoted to a religion that Lange deems so far removed from a world filled with real problems. Shadows of Paradise questions the spiritual meaning of the TM movement. Lange documents the movement’s change after the death of Maharishi in 2008. With intimate access to two of TM’s leaders, filmmaker David Lynch and Bobby Roth, Lange questions each man extensively on their devotion to the movement, what it means to them, and how the movement is changing.
The documentary begins with the funeral of the Maharishi who, by the time of his death at 90, left millions of followers and billions of dollars related to his movement behind. People of a certain age who are unfamiliar with transcendental meditation may be most familiar with the Maharishi through his association with The Beatles. Their pilgrimage to India in the late ’60s led to a sex scandal involving Mia Farrow and the creation of what is arguably the best Beatles album (the white album). This documentary spends a bit of time on this subject, with archival footage of the Beatles’ visit and footage from a TM benefit concert attended by Paul and Ringo in 2009. Celebrity association is a key factor to the TM movement.
There seem to be many readily available celebrities who have been taken by TM’s promise of bliss. In addition to the Beatles, this includes the aforementioned David Lynch. Lynch (director of Mulholland Drive among other gems) is the unlikely spokesperson for transcendental meditation. Lange met Lynch at the Maharishi’s funeral, where he recognized that the Maharishi had seriously inspired Lynch. Lange was fascinated by this connection, and wanted to understand how this happened — maybe this was the inspiration for the documentary itself. Lynch certainly has a lot to say about the benefits of TM and how it has changed him.
Shadows of Paradise, much like the topic it deals with, is a slow, steady and serene documentary. This is not an exploitative documentary meant to undermine the followers of TM, even though the director himself is no longer with the movement and clearly feels unsure about it. Instead it’s a — for lack of a better word — meditation on the topic that lets viewers draw their own conclusions. This documentary feels pretty timely at least, with our culture’s current obsession with meditation, the proliferation of meditation apps, and this never-ending talk of “mindfulness”. We’re all desperate for happiness. According to TM, meditation really is the answer. Maybe it’s worth a shot.
Is Shadows of Paradise opening weekend worthy?
It’s not an essential documentary. This isn’t extremely compelling stuff, so maybe skip it unless you’re seeking personal enlightenment.
Shadows of Paradise opens Friday, February 24, 2017 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.