Jillian Elizabeth is an independent documentary producer and cinematographer. Her directorial debut, Gurukulam, reflects her growing interest in observational and experiential cinema. Collaborating as a co-producer and cinematographer on the documentary, Whatever It Takes, Jillian followed the changing landscape of urban education in New York City. A Sundance Institute Documentary Fund grantee, with major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Whatever It Takes aired nationally on PBS’s Independent Lens in March 2010. Jillian Elizabeth was also a creative producer of On Coal River, a documentary that tells the powerful story of a West Virginian community experiencing the harsh realities of modern coal mining. On Coal River premiered at AFI/SilverDocs, was nominated for a 2010 Gotham Award, and was screened at the MoMA in NYC. She has worked as a shooter for Academy award winning filmmaker, Alex Gibney, Gemini award winning filmmaker, Rosie Dransfeld, and award winning independent journalist, Amy Goodman.
Neil Dalal is Assistant Professor of South Asian Philosophy and Religious Thought at the University of Alberta. He holds an MA in East/West Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, and a Ph.D. in Asian Cultures and Languages from the University of Texas at Austin where he studied Indian philosophy, the history of Indian religions, and Sanskrit. He has spent over four years in India studying Advaita Vedānta, the philosophy of non-duality, with traditional scholars and monks. Dalal is the co-editor of Asian Perspectives on Animal Ethics with Routledge Press, and currently writing a book analyzing the intersection of texts, contemplative practices, and religious experience in Advaita Vedānta.
When we entered the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in rural India we discovered a place that was both ancient and contemporary—a unique contemplative world and a necessary contrast to urban society. We knew that we had to approach the subject in an exceptional and non-traditional manner in order to convey its essence.
Unlike traditional documentaries on religion, which tend to be either didactic or mediated through political and social lenses, Gurukulam seeks to capture a direct experience of a place and community. The film incorporates storytelling structures that do not rely on the narrative movement of time. By using non-linear approaches, we invite viewers to immerse themselves into an unordinary viewing state while delivering a portrait of a place that is rarely opened to outsiders. The film acts as a metaphor, where its structure in terms of tempo and rhythm mirrors its content and evokes the spiritual and emotional processes of the students.
The film brings the viewer into the Gurukulam as if they are studying there and stepping into the lives of the students. The idea is to provide a direct, empathetic, and experiential insider view. The film’s intentional lack of narration and composed music seeks to remove any mediating filters between viewers and subject/place. The intimate cinematography, extended shots, pacing of scenes, and rich soundscape enables the viewer to embody the physicality of the space. This avoids the kind of cold distancing and orientalist “othering” that drives a wedge dividing the East and West.
The unfolding of the film invites the viewer to engage a process of contemplative self-inquiry with a sense of the wholeness that the tradition reveals. We hope to ground the audience in their deeper humanity, and to experience a nostalgic sense of recovering something lost.
Directors Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth
filming in Tamil Nadu, India