A limp, poorly executed excuse to share the teachings of one of the world’s most famous spiritual teachers and guides, the documentary Becoming Nobody is one of those films aimed squarely at superfans who’re already staunch followers, but it’s doubtful that they’ll find any further enlightenment from this heavily recycled material than they’ve already received. If you know nothing about Ram Dass and his philosophical musings, you’ll be even more confused by filmmaker Jamie Catto’s efforts, and if you’ve hung onto this American guru’s every word, chances are you’ve heard all of this before. Becoming Nobody is a virtually context free affair that plays less like a tribute to the man or a new platform that can be used to espouse his teachings and more like a greatest hits album of noteworthy moments that’s been assembled seemingly at random.
Ram Dass, also known as Dr. Richard Alpert, began his career as a counterculture icon and turned that into becoming one of the most sought after speakers on the nature of spiritual enlightenment. In the late 1960s, Ram Dass started “tuning in” with Dr. Timothy Leary, and the psychedelic drugs he took became a gateway to a new way of thinking about ego, enlightenment, and self. He took a trip to India, found a guru that he admired, and never looked back from his new path. By his own admission, Ram Dass has tried virtually everything a human being could to reach enlightenment, and while he has learned plenty along the way, people flock to his talks, seminars, and classes and read his books so they can begin their own journeys. Today he speaks about the masks we wear when dealing with others, and why our struggle to “become somebody” is counterintuitive to fostering a healthy sense of wellbeing.
Don’t expect much biographical detail to trickle out of Becoming Nobody, as Catto has framed his film more as an excuse to hang out with one of his idols and show off a bunch of archival seminars and talks than a standard documentary. Trying to find any sort of personal background about Ram Dass throughout Becoming Nobody is like finding an acorn under three feet of snow. There’s a little bit about his upbringing as a Jewish kid from Boston and some talk about how and why he changed the course of his studies around the time of his spiritual transformation in 1967, but most of the details given throughout Becoming Nobody are psychological ones that strike as meaningless without further context and exploration.
A big part of Ram Dass’ teachings is how he opens up to his devotees and explains that he’s a flawed human being who gets angry, annoyed, and selfish just like everyone else. Those are fine anecdotes to share, and they work within the confines of a lecture hall or speaking engagement where most in attendance have done their homework, but in the context of a documentary like Becoming Nobody it becomes the cinematic equivalent of one of those tacky wall signs with inspirational sayings on them that one can pick up at a department store for less than the price of a movie ticket.
Becoming Nobody is an unfocused mess of a film built around two things: famous talks that Ram Dass has given and a positively cringe inducing sit down between Catto and his idol. The former doesn’t work because without any context or biographical detail, Becoming Nobody is nothing more than a mix tape of moments assembled seemingly at random. There’s no throughline and no flow to any of Becoming Nobody, and each sequence seems to exist in a vacuum of its own. If you don’t already worship the ground that Ram Dass walks upon, you probably won’t understand the meaning of any of this because following along from moment to moment is virtually impossible, and investment in what’s being said ebbs and flows
To make things even worse, Becoming Nobody has one of the most poorly planned visual styles of any film this year. Whenever Catto isn’t on screen interviewing Ram Dass – who isn’t in the best of health these days, but seems very happy – the film is nothing but archival speeches that have been broken up visually through the use of stock footage. You know you’re watching a terribly made documentary when the filmmaker can’t even find proper stock footage to employ, and the choices made throughout Becoming Nobody are sometimes unintentionally laughable and amateurish. As Ram Dass talks about spiritual and sexual celibacy, Catto shows a couple of guys trying to move a donkey. While Ram Dass speaks eloquently on why people should be aware of the suffering of others, Catto distractingly shows footage of a dachshund and a pug fighting for the affections of a woman who’s trying to meditate. These images have some sort of metaphorical meaning (as all images do), but they’re odd choices to pair with such talks. One could replace most of the stock footage in Becoming Nobody with still frames of clip art and the results would be exactly the same.
But while the deployment of Ram Dass’ teachings through Becoming Nobody is botched, it’s in no way worse than Catto’s interview segments. Catto, who became enamoured with his subject when he came to speak at his British boarding school, can’t stop making Becoming Nobody about himself, and the self-insertion is both ingratiating and wildly egotistical. Catto, who’s probably better known as one part of the electronica act Faithless, gushes emptily about his adoration for Ram Dass to his face, and the only bit of objectivity the filmmaker shows comes in the form of the director getting a bit too pushy and disagreeing with the teacher’s already malleable and interpretive philosophies, to which the subject can only laugh and shrug. It’s a bad fit for a film about a man who has done everything in his power to distance himself from his own ego, and one wonders if Catto has actually learned anything from Ram Dass at all. Becoming Nobody is a film about a selfless man that’s driven purely by ego, and the hypocrisy of it all is maddening and uncomfortable to watch. It’s staggeringly tone deaf.
I come neither to praise or demonize someone who has clearly meant a lot to millions of students and enlightenment seekers around the world, but rather to explain just why Becoming Nobody is such a terrible movie. Some of Dass’ teachings shared in the film – like why we shouldn’t fear death and the reasons why people subscribe to belief systems that make them feel like they’re in the right – are thoughtful and stimulating. While I would argue that Dass’ work is more about fostering a sense of self-awareness than actual enlightenment (which are two very different things), I can see why people would want to listen. I can’t see why someone other than the extremely enamoured like Catto would want to watch Becoming Nobody. If one were to shut their eyes and simply listen to the words spoken by Dass, Becoming Nobody might be a moderately productive affair. Unfortunately, cinema is a visual medium, and Becoming Nobody is as engrossing and ambitious as a blank screen.
Becoming Nobody opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, The Vic in Victoria, and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, September 6, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Becoming Nobody: