Jamie Catto’s worshipful documentary Becoming Nobody is more like an infomercial for spiritual teacher Ram Dass than a fully fledged story about the man himself. The eighty-minute film, having its US theatrical release at the Rubin Museum beginning September 6, primarily consists of archival footage of the former Dr. Richard Alpert, who changed his name and the direction of his life after taking psilocybin with Timothy Leary and meeting Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji, who would become his guru. Catto, who has studied extensively with Ram Dass for more than twenty years, traveled to Maui to speak with Ram Dass in his home; snippets of their talk are interwoven with long clips of Ram Dass teaching throughout the years, old family photos and home movies, supposedly related cartoons, text such as “Treat everyone you meet like God in drag,” and what appears to be B-roll stock footage of pleasant, entertaining scenes of two dogs playing as a young woman meditates and of an elderly woman feeding birds in London. None of the footage is identified, so you won’t always be able to tell which show Ram Dass and his family and which portray just random people.
Ram Dass, who had a stroke in 1997 and uses a wheelchair, is photographed in his house with a picture of Maharaj-ji behind him; most of the informal chatting between him and Catto comprises the director trying to impress his teacher with what he has learned from him and Ram Dass, who is now eighty-eight, either agreeing or correcting him, always with a smile and a laugh. They might be having fun, but that doesn’t mean we are. Ram Dass fans are likely to love the film, but those who don’t know much about him will not become better informed about who Dr. Alpert was and who Ram Dass is. Of course, Ram Dass could explain that away; among the things he says are, “How do we know who we are?” and “The game is not about becoming somebody, it’s about becoming nobody.” That’s not to say that Ram Dass’s teachings, which tackle such ideas as anger, hypocrisy, psychedelics, thoughts, complaining, neuroses, the illusion of the self, masks, death, and the space suit we are born in, aren’t worthwhile in and of themselves, and it is entertaining to see how his look has dramatically changed over time; it’s just that they are not compelling in a feature documentary. Not only is Catto an acolyte but so is the producer, Raghu Markus, who also studied with Maharaj-ji and Ram Dass. And if you go to the film’s official website, there is little there about the movie itself; instead, there’s a starter kit, “a beginner’s manual for conscious explorers and transformation enthusiasts.” I found out more about Ram Dass by looking at his Wikipedia page. He does look like a nice guy, so I just want to reiterate that it’s the film that let me down, not Ram Dass himself. Then again, I’m sure he would say that my reaction is more a reflection of myself than of the film, so I guess I did learn something after all.