Consciousness takes top billing on the Cinema Marquee

When we think about the previous year in review from the perspective of films focused on the spiritual themes, it feels as though 2014 was the year Conscious Cinema expanded beyond its usual niche. By the way, Conscious Cinema is not my term, it’s a phrase coined to capture the amazing films and documentaries that hit the big screen exploring spirituality, metaphysics, and our search for meaning. Some examples of this genre include films like AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, (Paola di Florio, Lisa Leeman, and Peter Rader), Finding Joe, (Pat Solomon), Walking the Camino, (Lydia Smith), Song of the New Earth, (Betsy Chasse, Ward Serrill, Sophie Jane Mortimer), and Monk with a Camera, (Guido Santi, Tina Mascara).

Films like these were previously relegated to fringe festivals, special screenings, obscure spiritually-oriented websites, and evenings in yoga studios, have found their way into the more mainstream world of theaters! I mean, actual theaters, with sticky seats and popcorn (and yes, even some theaters are now selling organic, non-GMO popcorn!).

It was nearly 11 years ago now that my film, What The Bleep Do We Know?!, was able to break out and enjoy a theatrical run, but even that film, with its huge success, never really hit the mainstream. But it did well enough to demonstrate that there were a lot of people (and I do mean a lot) that were interested in watching something that explored metaphysics more than Batman and anything Will Farrell.

So what’s going on? LA YOGA Editor Felicia Tomasko and I sat down with Lisa Leeman (Awake) and Pat Solomon (Finding Joe) to discuss the trend.

“People are looking for meaning in their lives,” says Leeman. It’s true that we’ve lived through decades of decadence, and statistics show that more and more people every day are asking the question,“Is this it, or is there more to life than big houses and big cars?” I asked distributor and publisher Richard Cohn of Beyond Words publishing if he has seen an increase in demand for films that tackle the big questions. His reply, “Yes, for sure. There is now New Age water in grocery stores, corporate leaders who use intuition for decision-making and long-term forecasting. Yoga studios are accessible. The audience for self-help and spirituality books and films has grown as people have begun looking for a more meaningful life experience.”

I like to use small town and rural Walmart stores as my barometer of what’s moving into the mainstream. On my latest visit, I found the Buddha, all over the store. Big plastic Buddha heads filled the garden statuary section, and little Buddha statues lined the home decorating aisle, so yes, clearly the tenets of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern Philosophies are making their way to the masses.

Is this new? Not when you consider the fact that philosophical and spiritual ideas have been making their way into films, well, since the beginning of film. For example, the 1902 George Méliès film, Trip to The Moon, is an indicator that filmmakers and audiences alike have long explored the big questions about who are we and why are we here, and use film as a means to explore those ideas. “Epic films like the Star Wars Trilogy,” relied heavily on Lucas’ infatuation with Joseph Campbell, archetypes, and the hero’s journey,” says Solomon whose documentary feature, Finding Joe, explores Campbell’s work and its impact on film and our everyday lives. “We’re all living a hero’s journey and I think that’s why films like this resonate with people; the films tell our stories and give insight into how we might be able to live a happier life.”

Storytelling is an ancient tradition of which filmmaking is simply a modern extension of sharing tales around a fire or through a live performance. Through film we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and experience life from a different perspective. Movies can help us transcend our own life struggles, even if for only two hours. But in today’s world, it seems that people aren’t just looking for a two-hour escape, they’re seeking guidance as they reevaluate their own lives and how they are living.

In the past five years it feels as though it has became safe to admit that, “Hey, I meditate,” and “I’m definitely a practicing Hindu,” as Julia Roberts stated to Elle and People magazines when Eat, Pray, Love stormed theaters in 2010. Oprah began featuring authors and experts and even everyday people who have transformed their lives through meditation, spiritual practices, and philosophies—with a bit of a modern twist. Instead of using the word “meditation,” many CEOs will credit mindfulness practices as to why they seem more relaxed and at ease during these stressful times. Athletes will attribute visualization techniques with the increase in their game, and even teachers are using mindfulness techniques in the classroom. All of these concepts have their foundation in Eastern philosophies.

So of course it makes sense that the films people are going to see reflect their interests and the interest these days has a strong emphasis on meaning, spirituality and quality of life.

The films represented by Conscious Cinema not only explore all of those ideas and concepts, but at their heart, they are stories about the human condition, stories told by people who are asking the same questions as their audience. “There is a genuineness about these films, a quest to seek higher meaning. I make a film because I’m curious, I’m seeking an answer and the film is reflective of my journey of discovery,” says Leeman. “And that journey is relatable.”

“We find connection, we find answers, and sometimes more questions. And when we go to a theater we find community,” says Solomon. “In today’s world where everything is available with the click of a button on a tiny screen, there is something special about the moment when the lights come up after seeing one of these films on the big screen and you look around and you see other people who share your journey. You feel connected; that’s powerful.”

While audiences today may know how the romantic comedy will end and still enjoy the time in the theater, people are also seeking a deeper exploration of meaning, and a number of films today are reflecting this depth, even so-called mainstream fare. For example, 2014 saw the release of spiritual and metaphysical films asking big questions, such as Gravity (actually released in 2013), Interstellar, Noah, and Lucy, just to name a few. And 2015 promises to be another great year for mind-expanding cinema: Legacy, Avatar 2, and Star Wars VII will be coming to theaters near you. In addition, according to Illuminate Film Festival Lead Programmer Sheron Foster, we can also look forward to independent gems like Merchants of Doubt, the star-studded Unity, and Wim Wender’s Salt of the Earth. Other strong conscious releases in the pipeline for 2015 include Power of the Heart from the director of The Secret; Mikki Willis’s Be Brave and Milton’s Secret, based on the book by Eckhart Tolle and Robert Friedman. With films like this coming up on the marquee, we can look forward to more trips to the cinema. And as the late Roger Ebert would say, “I’ll see you at the movies!”

Betsy Chasse is first and foremost a mom with two amazing kids, an author (Tipping Sacred Cows, Metanoia, and the BLEEP books) and a filmmaker (What The Bleep Do We Know?! Song of the New Earth, and Pregnant In America. You can find out more about her at: betsychasse.net