Richard Alpert’s life can be separated into six sections:
pre-Harvard, Harvard, post-Timothy Leary, India, post-India,
and the current post-“stroked.” Befriending Timothy Leary,
author of Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out and The Politics
of Ecstasy, was the first of many life-altering
encounters in Richard’s life. A few years later in India,
Richard was introduced to Maharaj ji who would become
his spiritual leader and bestow upon him the name “Ram
Dass,” meaning “servant of God.”.Ram Dass then went on
to write the best-selling book Be Here Now. Rather
than solely concentrating on these early segments in Ram
Dass: Fierce Grace however, director Mickey Lemle
focuses more intensely on the post-India years and how Ram
Dass’s spirituality has been greatly affected by his stroke,
as unforeseen debilitations and therapy sessions became daily
contestats and reaffirmations of his faith.
This documentary—full of aha moments—transcends the tee-tottering
emotions of tragedy and joy, and reaches a balance both cinematically
and thematically. We see a young activist, soon after the
funeral of her assassinated boyfriend, who epitomizes the
confusion involved when faith collides with injustices in
life. She attempts to deal with his physical removal, all
the while reaching for the belief that he is still with her
in spirit. Ram Dass is overcome with emotion at one point
during their discussion, and together, they ponder the meaning
of “waking up” in relation to spirituality and the necessity
of taxing experiences in life.
The direction of the movie lapses between the present and
past, adding context to the now, and greater meaning to the
current changes in Ram Dass’s life. Remarkably, the contextual
past feels alive in this film. We know the ’60s were a long
time ago, but in this documentary they’re just one scene away.
Sixteen mm video clips of Ram Dass’s childhood stays at the
family’s estate (dubbed “The Farm”) and documented events
at Harvard and in India ignite the past, making memories more
than just forgettable smoke. Followers and converts sought
insight from him upon his return from India, and the peace,
love, and a dove grove contrasts with Ram Dass’s present reality
of aging and inevitable loss.
Still eloquent despite stroke-induced speech problems, Ram
Dass pointedly articulates reflections concerning his spirituality
that have demanded a fierce ability to accept change. Time
and time again, he creates axioms of truth out of insightful
deductions made from a life fully lived and not yet over.
It’s all reminiscent of a clip from the past when he says
simply, “You can’t buy in to someone else’s trip.”
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace is a well constructed documentary
that functions broadly as a commentary of changing times.
On a smaller scale, however, it is a simple portrait of one
man; a man who is portrayed by the turns in his past, the
light of his present, and the uncertainty of his future.
Are we all capable of fierce grace? Now that’s the stuff
—Sandra M. Ogle