Film-maker Vasudeva Dasa had planned to spend only three days at ISKCON’s Radhadesh community in rural Belgium to celebrate the annual Janmastami festival, when a doctor advised him to stop traveling and rest for three weeks—and he got an unexpected offer that would make a strong impression on him.
“I was requested to make a five-minute promotional video for Radhadesh’s website, for which I would be provided with all the necessary equipment, as well as a free room and prasadam,” he says. “I accepted the offer as one of those lovely surprises God and life sometimes throws at you. From then on, I had a constant feeling of being in the right place at the right time, not by my own plan or choice, but by Krishna’s kindness.”
As soon as he started work, Vasudeva found himself drawn into a wonderfully quaint and spiritual world. The five-minute project grew to ten minutes, then twenty, and finally became a full-fledged thirty-minute documentary.
The project consumed Vasudeva, who thought about it constantly day and night. His three-week stay extended to six weeks, during which he worked roughly 500 hours.
“Everything seemed to flow as if I was not the controller, but controlled like a puppet by Krishna,’ he says. “I felt so happy.”
At the end of Vasudeva’s stay in Radhadesh, his finished film—entitled “Discovering Radhadesh”—was premiered to a packed community hall, who rewarded his service with their raptured attention and thrilled laughter.
Of course, the best audience is one simultaneously excited and embarrassed to see themselves on camera—but right from the outset, as the majestic converted Petit-Somme Chateau is framed against a bright blue sky, it’s obvious that Vasudeva’s film is going to be an inspiring glimpse into a unique community, one of ISKCON’s most prominent.
The Chateau, set in a little hamlet called Petit-Somme that’s so quaint it practically resembles Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings films, had undergone many years of disuse and vandalism before ISKCON acquired the derelict property in 1979. Learning just about every skill to do with the restoration of ancient monuments, devotees put many years of hard work into the building, and today it’s the centre of a thriving spiritual community.
Although set in a small village, Radhadesh itself is like a self-contained town. It’s got a bakery, a cafeteria restaurant, a boutique, a museum of sacred art, a ‘goshala’ were cows are cared for and milked, and a Sunday school with two playgrounds for the kids.
Radhadesh is also home to the central offices of Bhaktivedanta Library Services, one of the largest suppliers of publications and goods for Krishna devotees around the world; Vanipedia, a wiki-like online repository of all of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings; and the famous Bhaktivedanta College, an accredited school for students of all nationalities that combines first-class material education with a strong attention to character development and spiritual growth.
The French-born Vasudeva is an extremely affable guide through all of these features, both when he appears on camera, and in his narration throughout the film. It’s as if the man was born to be a narrator—his narration is as professional as that of any mainstream documentarian, yet it’s also warm and friendly, so that while watching Discovering Radhadesh one feels in safe hands and right at home at the same time.
Of course, Vasudeva is an old hand at this—he directed 1990’s Pulling Krishna Home, about the original Rathayatra festival in Puri, Orissa; as well as 1988’s Timeless Village of the Himalayas, which was awarded the American Video Conference Award by The American Film Institue, and remains probably the only ISKCON film ever to receive an award from a conventional film organization.
Soon after, however, Vasudeva left film-making for sixteen years, only returning to the service in 2008 when he was encouraged by devotees in Mayapur, India, where he lives now. Since then, he’s thrown himself back into it with enthusiasm and has already made several films.
There are places where Discovering Radhadesh is a bit rough around the edges. The DVD’s menu looks unfinished, some shots in the film seem to differ in quality, and the picture switches strangely from “letterbox” format to full screen throughout. In addition, some sections early on in the film drag a little, and could have benefited from more dynamic shots and editing.
But that’s all just nitpicking—after all, Vasudeva is still finding his footing again after many years away. And it’s a delight to see ISKCON film-making back in a big way after such an extensive drought. Discovering Radhadesh is an informative, personal look at one of ISKCON’s most inspiring and dynamic spiritual communities, full of likeable, quirky characters and vibrant shots of delicious gourmet vegetarian food, rosy-cheeked and smiling devotees, and the stunning deities of Sri-Sri Radha Gopinath.
The film draws us in, just as Radhadesh drew Vasudeva in, and we get the sense that Radhadesh is a truly spiritual sanctuary, a place just radiating devotion and brahminical nature where one could easily absorb oneself in studying, chanting and recharging one’s spiritual batteries.
Still, for all its quietness and studiousness, Radhadesh is full of activity. Vasudeva’s film shows the philosophy of bhakti being played out—rather than renouncing everything and becoming austere minimalists, these spiritualists absorb themselves completely in God by serving him constantly.
We see the thriving community of 100 residents milking cows in a quaint farm stall, dancing and chanting jubilantly in a converted nineteenth century ballroom—now, Vasudeva jokes, a “Haribol room”—and serving delicious sanctified vegetarian food to the 20 to 30,000 guests they welcome annually. (“I call it ‘seriously scrumptious’ the Frenchman says in his cheerfully entertaining style.) We see a large group of devotees pile into a bus and drive two hours to Antwerp to chant and distribute spiritual literature—which they do once a month—and impossibly cute children wrapped up in hats and scarves and singing outside while playing mridanga drums almost as big as them. It’s Krishna consciousness in action.
After witnessing a western Radhadesh priest preside over an Indian wedding between a western bride and groom, Vasudeva asks us, “Isn't marriage universal? Isn't the life-long vow of saying ‘I do!' to each other sacred and common to all civilizations? Likewise, isn’t religion saying ‘I do!’ to Krishna, the supreme friend within our loving hearts?”
That just about sums up the essence of Radhadesh and its devotees. There, Vasudeva found renewed inspiration and health, and it’s clear in his film that he’s enthusiastic about passing that same gift on to us.
So, from this reviewer, consider “Discovering Radhadesh” your doctor’s prescribed dose of spiritual inspiration.
Vasudeva Dasa’s production company, BhakTV, has just launched its new website BhakTV.com, where an excerpt of “Discovering Radhadesh” will be available in February 2011. There will also be an option to download the full film. Please check back at ISKCON News in late January for an announcement confirming the exact date of availability.