Gandhi's KUMARE and other documentary tricks

On the heels of CATFISH and I’M NOT THERE comes Vikram Gandhi’s KUMARÉ, the SXSW Audience Award winner that should be showing up in theatres sometime this Spring. The director calls it “compassionate rule-breaking,” and his exploration of spirituality definitely breaks the rule of disclosure. A dozen or so people are hoodwinked into becoming spiritual disciples of someone they believe to be an Indian guru, but who’s really just a 30-something Columbia grad making his first film – that, and he happens to be named Gandhi.

Documentaries that fool us are all the rage. In the compelling CATFISH, you get the feeling that Nev’s pursuit of a mysterious Facebook romance continues because it makes a really good movie, and so it can feel disingenuous or plotted out (though this bothered me not a bit). Then in I’M NOT THERE, Joaquin Phoenix continues his media charade of leaving acting for a career in hip hop. In Gandhi’s case, he’d been searching for a suitable subject for years, one that got to the contradictions he was experiencing as a young Indian-American watching the yoga craze taking off in New York City. How did a tight butt relate to getting closer to God? This led the filmmaker on a quest to meet spiritual leaders, which then led to a quest to become one. Or at least play one on TV. Gandhi perfected his character and his simple-guy Indian accent, flew with a crew to Arizona, home of all things crazy (and my home state), and he was off and running. Some of the scenes are hilarious; Some excruciating for the way in which this ruse builds and the disciples continue to commit.

So what of this trend? Does it cross the line of documentary ethics? Unlike I’M NOT THERE, which does nothing to identify itself as trickery, KUMARÉ comes clean in the first few frames via voice over. And KUMARÉ works hard to make it all okay in the end as well. But does this actually make it okay? One thing is clear; All of these films are entertaining. And I’m personally glad they exist for their bold content, cringe-worthy drama and potent exploration of universally human themes. But do I simultaneously feel slightly bad for those caught in the net? Of course. It’s seems to be part and parcel of the experience.