Documentary, not rated, 88 minutes, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
Director Jacqui Fifer’s film on the transformative power of mindfulness is more effective as a story — six stories, really — of triumph over adversity than as an exploration of the life-changing effects of meditation. Each of its six main subjects use meditative practices that have altered their lives in positive ways. The film’s premise is that, if we each did this, we could change the world. But the nature of the meditative practices they engage in is under-explored, and it comes so late in the film, it seems almost like an afterthought.
We learn a lot about the six people who are the focus of the film, which intercuts between their stories throughout. Each one came to a place of acceptance and inner peace after experiencing trauma. Ron “Booda” Taylor grew up on the streets and was involved with gangs and petty crime. His life changed when he was given a choice by a judge who knew his family: join the military or go to jail. Amandine Roche, a human rights lawyer, works with Syrian refugees in Jordan, and she’s haunted by the memory of fleeing war-torn Afghanistan, knowing that others would be left behind. Vietnamese refugee Due Quach was raised in an environment of abuse and neglect, and found herself shut-off, emotionally, in her college years. Neurosurgeon James Doty lost millions of dollars after the 2008 economic crash. Athlete Heather Hennessy, a track star with ambitions to compete in the Olympics, broke her back in a cliff-diving accident, ending her career. And Rabbi Ronnie Cahana suffered a severe stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, a near-total paralysis.
That each, in turn, overcame their difficulties, and that they attribute some of that to meditation and mindfulness — and, in the case of Roche, to yoga — is a compelling endorsement of these practices. And at times, The Portal is a real tearjerker. Rabbi Cahana’s story is particularly affecting. He found inner peace, not through daily meditation, but because his condition forced him to be still. It left him barely able to move and he can only speak haltingly. But his acceptance and good humor about it is admirable. There are positive, affirming life lessons here.
But there’s a framing narrative that doesn’t work. Neuroscientists and psychology researchers like Daniel Schmachtenberger offer intriguing but vague allusions to evolutionary processes and how meditation can accelerate our drive to a higher level of being. Dr. Julia Mossbridge’s experiments with artificial intelligence and a robot programmed to only elicit loving compassion provide a fascinating look at new directions in technology, but feel like they belong in another film. The message of The Portal is that what the world needs now, more than ever, is empathy, love, and understanding. But rather than long shots of Taylor, Quach, and the others, eyes closed, in peaceful states of reflection, greater context would be welcome.
Fifer and producer Tom Cronin will be on hand for an audience Q&A after the 5:15 p.m. screening on Sunday, Nov. 10.