i'll just borrow a quote from the film-maker, rather than attempt to provide an intro / synopsis.
"in late 1984 and early 1985 i was back in benares making forest of bliss, a film about which i had pondered at length since my first unsettling visit ten years earlier. i have shaped the film so that it occupies the time between two sunrises. it stands as an exclusively visual statement resorting neither to voiced commentary nor subtitles. it is about people being and also dying.
of the multitude at work, at play and at prayer, three individuals are seen in somewhat greater detail than others. they are: a healer of extraordinary geniality who attends pained and troubled people both in his modest home above manikarnika, the main cremation ground, and the durga temple late at night; the baleful and untouchable king of the cremation grounds, who vigorously exercises his hereditary rights to sell sacred fire and grass to mourners; and an unusually conscientious priest who performs sacred rites at a small shrine he maintains near the ganges.
seeing forest of bliss completed, i am quite certain that the animals, especially the dogs, have an importance i merely glimpsed as i was shooting. the dogs and, of course, the river." - robert gardner
it's kinda strange, i had just finished watching the section on varanasi (as benares is now known) in an episode of 'dan cruickshank's adventures in architecture' (a series i would recommend), when i was informed about this screening. hence, i had already received a good introduction to this strange city and, to be honest, i'm quite glad i had, as one must question the documentary value of 'forest of bliss'.
a couple of months of filming, presented as if it is a couple of days, no commentary, no translation of dialogue, just an observance of people, customs, animals, buildings, the river and the city. and, in truth, an unreliable observance at that. this, however, does not matter.
as an exercise in cinematography and editing, both of which robert gardner has the credit for, this film is simply stunning. gardner has such a beautiful cinematic turn of phrase that one doesn't care if he's not striving to create a geo-ethnic document of the city and its traditions. all one should care for is the skill that he employs in capturing what he chooses and how he does so with such poise.
the dvd is $49.95 from documentary educational resources