for ISKCON News on June 25, 2011
ISKCON Italy’s flagship center, the rural community of Villa Vrindavana, was thrust into the public’s attention when the TV show 24/7 chose it as the focus of one of its episodes
Based on Morgan Spurlock’s US series 30 Days, 24/7 sees actress Laura Gauthier immerse herself for a week in various lifestyles which are unfamiliar to her, and often extreme. She serves as assistant to fashion designer Frankie Morello during Milan Fashion Week, works on an MSC Cruise ship, trains for her first parachute launch with Paratroopers of the Italian army, and even works as a lapdancer.
And sandwiched in amongst this lot, she also spends a week as an ISKCON devotee.
“Magnolia, the TV studio, just wanted to show her experiencing life in any spiritual community—it didn’t matter which one—and we were just one possible option,” explains Villa Vrindavana temple president Parabhakti Dasa. “But when they contacted me to ask us about our availability to film an episode, they were very friendly. And after a few meetings, they chose us, and we agreed.”
Interestingly, the approach of both host Laura Gauthier and the show itself, which seemed less than ideal at first, gradually changed as they began filming.
“At the beginning they made it clear that their intention was just to show how the ‘extreme lifestyle’ of the temple could affect Laura, with no intention to make a detailed documentary about us,” says Parabhakti. “But slowly, as they spent more time at Villa Vrindavana, the episode evolved from a focus on Laura’s challenge to more of a documentary on our Krishna conscious community.”
Gauthier—who is famous for her role in the critically-acclaimed show Le Iene (The Hyenas), which satirizes current affairs and unmasks corruption and abuse—spent the mid-March week leading up to and including the Gaura Purnima festival at the Villa Vrindavana temple.
There, she became part of the community, waking up—to her consternation—at 3:45am, attending the morning program, and offering service. The documentary shows her touching her head to the floor in obeisance before the Deities, learning how to put on a sari, chanting japa on beads, sweeping the temple room, and singing and dancing in kirtan and street “Harinamas,” where she encourages members of the public to chant and dance with the devotees. She also spends plenty of time talking to various devotees about their lifestyles and about the Vaishnava philosophy.
“She hadn’t been aware of the Hare Krishnas much before—to her, ‘Hare Krishna’ had just been something that came from India,” Parabhakti says. “So at first, she questioned everything and expressed a lot of skepticism, especially about our regulative principles—no meat-eating, no intoxication, no gambling, and no illicit sex. Soon, however, she started to appreciate the devotees’ mood, and her questions became more respectful, in an attempt to better understand specific aspects of Krishna consciousness.”
All Laura’s ups and downs, her doubts and positive feelings, were expressed in the show, making for a very authentic presentation. This, Parabhakti feels, was a more powerful introduction to Krishna consciousness than one of the devotees themselves could have given.
At the end of the episode, Laura tells her audience, “Before this experience, I couldn’t have imagined that there are people who completely dedicate their lives to God, without keeping anything for themselves. I can’t follow them, but I very much appreciate them and their message.” These words, coming from a non-follower, are highly effective in making an impression on the public, Parabhakti feels.
Meanwhile, Laura’s crew were also affected. Cameramen and production managers often left their equipment to join the devotees in kirtan, dancing enthusiastically. After a Harinam in Florence, one cameraman approached Parabhakti and told him, “I will never forget this experience for the rest of my life—my heart is deeply touched.”
The Villa Vrindavana episode of 24/7 was first broadcast at 9pm on April 5th by Deejay TV, a national TV station with a high percentage of young viewers.
The episode received good ratings, and devotees were told by makers of the show that it was their most popular episode. Phone calls and emails of appreciation flooded in to Villa Vrindavana from all over Italy.
The show’s impact was evident: the morning after the broadcast, Parabhakti phoned a local government official to get an update on an important issue for the temple. Right away, the man was more open than he’d ever been before. “I saw you on TV!” he exclaimed. “I just came back home from work, turned on the television, and there you were!”
“He was very impressed by the devotees’ profound lives and words,” says Parabhakti. “He admitted that before, he hadn’t thought Krishna consciousness was very beneficial for society, but after watching this TV program, his opinion was changing.”
Meanwhile after her experience at the temple, Laura Gauthier has been moved to visit Lord Krishna’s birthplace of Vrindavan, India in October to serve with Food For Life for fifteen days. The offering is completely spontaneous and free from ulterior motives—this time she’ll be on her own, with no cameras.
The show’s director invited Parabhakti into his studio to view an 80-minute cut of the 48-minute episode, in which devotees were interviewed in greater depth, and Krishna consciousness was presented in more detail. He apologized that he had to use the cut version to fulfill the conditions of his contract, but said he hoped to work with the devotees on another project in the future.
Since 24/7 thrust it into the limelight, more opportunities have arrived on Villa Vrindavana’s doorstep. A photographer has contacted the community about featuring it in an article, while Parabhakti has received proposals to hold various events there.
“People today believe what they see on TV, and the show helped a lot to give a good impression of devotees,” he says. “Visibility is an important key in interacting with society.”
He concludes, “For that reason, I would definitely suggest that ISKCON in every country establish their own communications team.”
An English version is not available, but you can watch the full documentary in Italian here