In Ganges: River to Heaven, filmmaker Gayle Ferraro travels to the Indian holy city of Kashi. For a number of reasons--including its location along the banks of the Ganges River--thousands of people every year travel to Kashi to die. Ferraro's film takes us inside one of the city's many hospices where families wait patiently for their loved ones to pass on.
Hindus believe, of course, in reincarnation. They also believe that, once a person is fully cleansed of evil, they will break the cycle of death and rebirth and ascend into Heaven. One of the surest ways to cleanse yourself of evil is to bathe in the River Ganges, drink from the River Ganges, hang out near the River Ganges, basically interact with the sacred river as much as humanly possible. (Three times a day seems to be a good number.) And, according to tradition, Kashi is the very spot at which Ganga, the Hindu mother-goddess of the Ganges, is at her strongest.
River to Heaven follows four families who have brought their dying relatives--often from hundreds of miles away--to expire on the banks of the Ganges. Ferraro's camera gently records the final ministrations the families bestow on their loved ones. In doing so, the film kicks off an interesting debate about the concept of dying with dignity. Clearly, all of the people who show up at the hospice are far beyond the help of any hospital. (One gets the impression that old people in India are freakin' old.) The spiritual acceptance their families exude seems to bespeak a healthy attitude toward the inevitable circle of life. Perhaps passing away surrounded by peace, love and religious devotion is preferable to being surrounded by drugs, feeding tubes and nurses. Just a thought.
The film also explores Kashi's intriguing “business” of death. Thousands are employed in an industry that provides litters for the funeral processions, elaborate jewel-toned burial cloths for the deceased, wood for the funeral pyres. This is among the film's most interesting explorations, and provides an eye-opening glimpse into this foreign world where the struggles of life and death are (quite literally) played out every day on the ancient ghats (stone steps that line the river).
The film features a beautiful music score by composer Claudio Ragazzi. Ferraro's and Ragazzi's collaboration can be also heard on Ferraro's other films, including "Sixteen Decisions", "Anonymously Yours" and "To Catch a Dollar". Featuring Warren Senders on vocals and tamboura, Vijaya Sundaram on sitar and Jerry Leake on tabla and percussion as well as Ragazzi on samplers, guitar and composition.
Still, as a simple, gorgeously shot primer on Hindu spirituality, Ganges: River of Heaven works, delivering the worthwhile message that maybe death can lead to a greater life.