Review of Enlighten Up

Skepticism is a healthy trait in documentary filmmaking. After all, without a healthy mistrust of their subjects, documentarians would basically be PR flaks.

With Enlighten Up, first-time director Kate Churchill attempts to provide a skeptic’s view of yoga. The twist is that Churchill is a firm believer in the practice as both a physical and spiritual tool. It’s her subject, a journalist named Nick Rosen, who provides the counterpoint. Recruited by Churchill to prove that experiencing yoga can transform anyone’s life, Rosen is taken to numerous studios and temples throughout the U.S. and India in search of enlightenment. It’s an intriguing premise, but Churchill can’t quite keep it under control.

The film’s main trouble stems from the conflict between Rosen and Churchill. Despite being the son of a shamanic faith healer, Rosen approaches the project as a journalist. He’s more interested in facts and the physical world than in anything touchy-feely or spiritual; he even makes a point of interviewing academics to find more reasons to be skeptical. Churchill, meanwhile, seems increasingly frustrated that Rosen doesn’t buy into any of yoga’s more metaphysical benefits, even after months of immersion. She repeatedly scolds Rosen for not taking things seriously and questions his motives for joining the project. For his part, Rosen hedges his answers to Churchill’s questions so often that you begin to wonder if he’s legitimately searching for truth or just enjoying travelling on the director’s dime.

This dynamic is distracting enough that it’s easy to forget the film’s merits — namely, the length it goes to in its search for the essence of yoga. From Indian masters to early American adopters of the practice to a retired professional wrestler who has started up a yoga studio for “regular guys” who don’t buy into mystical mumbo-jumbo, Enlighten Up is comprehensive in the perspectives it presents. It even acknowledges the contradictions in its expert opinions, admitting that there are no easy answers.

If the film was told entirely from Rosen’s perspective, or entirely from Churchill’s, it could be fascinating. With both of them present, though, it occasionally feels more like a battle of wills between filmmaker and subject. It’s interesting in a voyeuristic way, but it sure doesn’t seem like the right way to approach enlightenment.

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