Eavesdropping on Experience
The Forty Day Experience Directed by Tom Cohen and David Hanser Showing on Sunday at the Science Center, 4.p.m.
YOU OFTEN OVERHEAR bizarre snippets of conversation in a theater lobby or a screening room right before show time. But the following excerpt of a dialogue will stick with me for some time. "I feel so strong. I feel this incredible strength. I've felt strength I've never felt before...The energy's higher with the group...I want to stand here and attract energy to the community..." No, sir, this is not an introduction to a five-minute Exxon promo, this is a 30ish female going on about her devotion to a new brand of scientific mysticism known as the Arica theory, and that is what David Hanser's The Forty Day Experience is all about.
This brief (49-minute) documentary seeks to capture on film the experiences of 73 newcomers to the Arica theory and the intense sensations they undergo during their 40-day training session at a remote community nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. However, in trying to condense the various stages of the trainees' five-week-long encounter with the Arica theory into a taut, fastmoving film, Hanser leaves many questions about his subject unanswered and strips his work of many of the necessary documentary qualities. Indeed, as The Forty Day Experience moves crisply towards its seemingly premature end, the film assumes the quality of a come-on.
For one thing, Hanser's film never clearly distinguishes the so-called Arica theory from other forms of religion any mysticism and its attractions for 40,000 American Africans. To be sure, The Forty Day Experience gives the viewer some idea of the theory's principles and how they relate to an individual's day-to-day existence. The film opens with a dazzling shot of the sun above the ocean--replete with rich color schemes of oranges, purples, and reds--as a voice-over observes that "we lose our innocence through psychic pollution," which is, "like environmental pollution, an inevitable result of human society." The point is rammed home by a montage of photographs showing various moments of violence and human misery. But this effective cinematic ploy is followed by the enunciation of the guiding tenet underlying the spiritual system of Arica: "Unity must be achieved as a fact of reason and not an act of faith." The constant drone of John Bleibtreu's narration muddies the film, distracting the viewer from the lush visual imagery contained in the footage.
The object of the camera's attention soon moves to a close-up of ecstatic neophytes screaming to their follow trainees that "I am here because I want to change." This presumed act of self-confession is greeted by a babel of resonating applause and general whooping reminiscent of the narcotics-induced pandemonium of a rock concert. But these people do not get off on junk or ganja, they get off on quaintly named exercises like psychocalisthenics, karma processing and catharsis for the Acceptance of Change. As we are assured by our guide on this sojurn into Aricaland, "The same general principles operating in the system at large are also operative in the spirit and body of humanity."
THIS OBTRUSIVE RECITING of the Arica metaphysic detracts considerably from the film's documentary texture. Fortunately, this questionable device is partially offset by Hanser's unflinching look at the more excruciating encounter sessions among the trainees. These sequences are integrated into the film's discussion of the three major instincts of man according to the teachings of Arica's guru, a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo. In one instance, a young man in his 20s recalls a confrontation with his father which prompted him to call his father "stupid." The camera records the young man's acute sense of remorse over the incident, which reduces him to a childlike condition as he plaintively cries out for "Daddy." This particular sequence is inserted to illustrate what the Arican's call the "relations instinct of man," an instinct which corresponds to the individual's relationship with the father. Hanser makes generous use of similar mea culpa stories to demonstrate the impact of the 40-day Arica session on the trainees and this footage includes all the high points of the documentary.
But the film is plagued by defects that regrettably overshadow such fine examples of cinema verite filmmaking. The real purposes behind The Forty Day Experience come into question at junctures where the script flirts with the glorification of Ichazo, his religious system and the relevance of all this to interpersonal relationships. One shot shows Ichazo seated amidst the rural setting of a Colorado foothill (complete with a waterfall in background) as a trainee praises him: "Oscar's like a brother who's done it for you. I'm grateful." An alumnus of an asylum describes Arica as "the experience of the positive," Thanks to the wondrous effects of this theory and approach to life, of the trainee declares that he can look back on the "experience" of having passed his 33rd birthday in a mental hospital as a "totally necessary" one. If the makers of this film made any attempt to interview skeptics of the Arica theory or disillusioned ex-followers of Ichazo, the final result of their work shows no such efforts at even-handed presentation.
Since the film is blatantly aimed at disseminating information about the Arica theory and what potential trainees can expect from it, the film must be considered a qualified success. Ichazo's theory outlines nine mental and physical systems of man, but the film extensively deals with only the three basic instincts. The economy of words and footage used to examine the remaining six instincts is a shrewd way to preserve the brevity of the documentary and thereby insure maximum impact upon its audience. Endowed with a seasoned eye for color and an intuitive feel for pacing, The Forty Day Experiencenever begins to drag at any point during the progress of the narrative. But billing the movie as "the first feature color documentary on human development"may border on the misleading, raising some doubts as to the filmmakers' judgment and even integrity, if not their mastery of technique.