Independent and Slack Alice Films
In association with Calcutta Rescue Fund present
Directed, edited and shot by Alexander Snelling
Produced by Kirsty Allison and Alexander Snelling
UK release February 14, 2011
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This eighty minute multi- award winning documentary focuses on the travails and potentially transformative experiences of ten American tourists, aged sixteen to sixty five, on their first visit to India under the tantric wings of self-professed guru, Laurie Handlers, a 60 year old, surprisingly youthful, tie dye wearing New Yorker. Their arduous nine day tour of India, punctuated by long days of travel and pre-dawn risings, during which Handlers intermittently leads tantric chakra-clearing exercises to redirect trapped sexual energy, is meant to break down resistance to new experience, though the simultaneous 'squeezing' of one's anal sphincter during non-posture exercises is said to help.
Featuring beautiful, sometimes awe-inspiring footage of some of India's historic and spiritual high points, among them, life along the Ganges River and the Taj Mahal, the film also centres on the foibles of it's North American trippers, opening with shots of lumbering over-sized bums and buddha tummies. With the exception of a fit, real-life, self-made millionaress horse handler and the sixteen year old adopted Indian son of one of the travellers, the trippers are all middle aged, middle class Americans who have, by and large, delayed their pursuit of spiritual enlightenment in favour of the quest for material gain. They are, apparently, from all walks of life, from artist and administrative assistant to lawyer and singer. But despite the film's predictable opening, or possibly, enabled by it, one comes to increasingly empathise with these travellers, and their unprompted, off the cuff responses, ever more tired looking eyes and childlike glibness, making Tantric Tourists a successful journey, whether its' focus was intentionally meant to be universal or not.
Laughs are frequent, especially for those not personally enduring the journey's inconveniences and delights. Take for example, a lengthily scene of mass, enthusiastically loud chakra clearing on the Indian tour bus during which Laurie encourages uninhibited spontaneity in her students. If the sight of ten tourists literally talking, sometimes shouting to themselves while bouncing up and down in the seats of a moving coach, eyes closed isn't enough to inspire chuckles, the sight of the Indian driver and his young assistant struggling not to laugh out loud at their obviously crazy passengers is. The scene seems far too outrageous not to be real, though shades of today's all too easily assimilated TV docu-soaps are apparent, as the male voice over throughout further signifies.
The actual filming of this documentary, during which its director, Alexander Snelling claims nothing was 'planned, set up or even repeated for the cameras,' mirrors the tour itself - rather rocky at the outset, gathering momentum and savvy as it progresses, though we're told at the beginning that those accompanying guru Handlers are 'friends and supporters.' By the time the group reaches the Ganges, with its myriad of worlds within worlds, we are with the travellers, and lines between fact and fiction are smoothly blurred, with the American contingent doing nothing to hide their amazement and appreciation. There are also occasions on which some of the women openly express the ways in which seeing the great Ganges and its many dramas and rituals have moved them, with tears in their eyes. Such scenes are touching and enviable for the rapture they convey, whether real or feigned, though I suspect the reactions in most cases were both spontaneous and genuine.
Some intentionally cliché devices are also employed, such as a scenario in which an Indian tour guide takes the group to a village, in search of the 'real India,' which he states to the camera is 'not really India,' as its inhabitants have for several years, been accustomed to tourists visiting them and showering them with trinkets. Cut to the travellers, with Americans offering villagers baseball caps and t-shirts from 'home', and the millionaress doling out one sweet per child from a jar bought in the local shop. Such a contrived scene fits in with pre-conceived notions of gullible Americans and tight-wad millionaires, making the scene an unchallenging easy to watch, yet enjoyable one, in a tour guide book kind of way.
Nevertheless, director Alexander Snelling, who shot the film in nine days with two cameras, three crew and occasional help from a member of the cast, has cleverly straddled the border between feature film and documentary with Tantric Tourists, offering viewers just enough of a mixture of cliché and surprises to generate laughs as well as enlighten or, remind them of that unbridled blending of mysticism and tourist traps that is India. The film is also imbued with a real sense of India's over-populated streets and claustrophobic living, as well as its' colour and pageantry. It's all enough to make you want to board a plane post haste, avoiding inner-continental Indian train travel at all costs once you've arrived.
But has this journey changed anyone, earthy guru Laurie Handlers and those watching wonder. Perhaps, and the many souvenirs purchased by the travellers may help them re-conjure some of the feeling of the place. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, you can further the feelings of goodwill and enjoyment the film inspires by going to see Tantric Tourists, which will aptly, be screening at a cinema near you from February 14th - Valentine's Day. And once expenses have been recouped, a portion of the proceeds of DVD sales of this life-affirming, independent film will go to Calcutta Rescue Fund, which the film is already assiting through the encouragement of donations and inclusion in its' promotion. Calcutta Rescue Fund is a vital organisation which helps the needy of that impoverished region, particularly children, who especially benefit from it, gaining access to proper medical care and two new schools, among other vital needs. The Fund was begun (and is still enabled by) now 80 year old Dr. Jack Preger, who made his own life-initial changing journey to India from his home in the UK back in 1980.
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