It's an infomercial, but that's no reason to dismiss it out of hand. A 52-minute documentary designed to promote the rehabilitative properties of an ancient form of meditation, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana makes a reasonable case that its featured discipline can be at least as big a boon to the penal system as cable-TV privileges.
The movie takes us behind the walls of India's Tihar prison, a once-notorious place that allegedly slashed its recidivism rate by introducing its population of killers, drug smugglers and other detainees to the concept of spiritual development. Thanks to the progressive efforts of the jail's warden-like Inspector General, Kiran Bedi, prisoners were allowed to enroll in 10-day meditation courses that put them in touch with their inner selves and gave them the tools to overcome their feelings of loathing and victimization. Early on, we're shown the sight of a tearful student who's just emerged from one such marathon awareness session hugging a guard in overwhelmed gratitude; from there, the film backtracks to explain how such a sight could come about, and what it means to the future of incarceration.
The tone is as ashram-homiletic as one might expect, but Doing Time can also be wryly funny, as when a prisoner says that Vipassana has been so beneficial to him that he's almost glad he went to jail to learn it. It's an endearingly human moment, and it makes you wish that the film's tight running time and partisan tack hadn't prevented further subtleties from poking through. A tantalizing mention that not everybody "gets" the program the first time raises our interest in seeing concrete examples of prisoners persisting to engage in antisocial behaviors, of officials fretting over the potential failure of their experiment. The biggest complication the narrative throws at us is a freak rainstorm that threatened to derail Tihar's largest-ever Vipassana session. Filmmakers Ayelet Menahemi and Eilona Ariel don't even get that deluge on camera, though they do suggest it via some elementary postproduction effects. Their visual approach is commendable throughout, striking a sane middle ground between bleak DV minimalism and the edit-bay frenzy that makes so many amateur docs a chore to watch. Overall, Doing Time isn't going to score any Oscar nods, but its message transcends the pettier demands of sophistication. And if that message preaches that healing is an essential component of punishment, well, the timing couldn't be any better.