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From Issue Seven, February 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Transformational Films: A Genre on the Threshold

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It’s true that almost anywhere you go there is a film festival of some kind, but be thankful – they have taken the place of “big cinema” as venues for quality movies that may never see the dark of a Cineplex. This is especially true for movies without the enviable budgets of their studio counterparts or whose uplifting messages or controversial subject matter get passed over for the lucre of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking. It’s not that these producers and directors have given up on signing that gold-plated national distribution contract; indeed, it is often in these venues that such partnerships are made. But even though most filmmakers will go home empty-handed, the film festival circuit is becoming a legitimate arena for indie films to get exposure and start cultivating their audience. This includes a genre of film that has been loosely called “transformational.”

As noted in the 2006 article, “Movies on a Mission," “What differentiates these movies is their explicit intent to either affirm a positive vision of ourselves or the world or to actually change people – to challenge personal or cultural conditioning and beliefs.” They reflect the vision of storied television and film producer/director Norman Lear, who in a 1992 essay for Life magazine wrote,

We place our faith in what we can see, touch, and hear, and instinctively grasp for numbers to understand the world. We remain suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the  mysterious. Yet a culture that becomes a stranger to its own inner needs – which are, for better or worse, unquantifiable, intuitive, and mysterious – is a culture that has lost touch with the best in its humanity, its sense of shared moral values, its ethics, creativity, passion, wonder, and joy . . . [T]he next great improvement in the human condition will occur not through a millennial faith in technology but by uncovering a new, more spiritually satisfying notion of ‘progress,’ one that requires a vertical leap of faith, a leap in our inner development.

Eloquently stated, and yet technology has made it easier and easier for mission-driven filmmakers to tell their stories, as anyone with a camcorder and video editing software can become their own producer/director. Look no further than YouTube, Flickr, and a growing number of other sites for an avalanche of material from amateurs and professionals alike. At the same time, the ability to actually make money from these efforts remains as elusive as ever and perhaps has gotten worse as the competition for eyeballs and screen space has exploded. This partly explains the emergence of the festival as a parallel universe of possibility for filmmakers, although distribution strategies have expanded well beyond that over the last several years, especially for films seeking an audience that wants positive images and an inner experience of their transformational potential – films that complement their more activist-oriented kin, which continue to educate, challenge, and inspire (The Economics of Happiness, Dirt! The Movie, Fast Food Nation, and many others).

One company that is building a business and marketing model around such new distribution strategies is Transformational Entertainment Networks (TEN), founded by John Raatz of The Visioneering Group, which has a long history of finding creative ways to promote inspirational media. TEN sees itself as an umbrella group that will coordinate a variety of sales and promotional strategies, including live screenings, webcasts, and DVDs, through a network of nonprofits such as Unity Churches and other mission-driven organizations. Hollywood is also starting to explore the widening horizon of distribution systems. A panel organized by blue-chip producer Jerry Zucker (2010’s Fair Game, among many others) called “Where Do We Go from Here?” examined topics ranging from artificial intelligence to performance capture, 3D, and nontraditional theatrical venues. Panelists included production designer Alex McDowell (Watchmen, Minority Report), immersive art and entertainment expert Ed Lantz, neuroscientist Eric Haseltine, and transmedia storytelling expert Jordan Weisman.

Another sign that paradigm-busting films are spurring an infrastructure of support is The Aware Guide (“Your Guide to Life-Changing Media”). Founded by Gary Tomchuk, former CEO of Hazel Henderson’s Ethical Markets Media, The Aware Guide acts as both a networking hub and a review site for all channels of media, including audio, video, television, radio, and film, which “inspire the movement of society toward ideals, values, and practices that create a better world for everyone.” Similarly positioned to help aspiring creatives build the transformational media space is META (Media, Entertainment, Technology and Arts Association), a new trade organization dedicated to industry professionals “who are catalyzing positive change through media,” and the soon-to-launch GATE (Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment). And since 2003 there has been the Spiritual Cinema Circle, which continues to provide its monthly members with a wide range of inspirational features, shorts, and documentaries via an active acquisition program of new releases.

Although the festival remains a key component in any effort to get wider exposure for new films, there are very few that focus primarily on themes of body-mind-spirit; most topic-driven festivals such as the Global Peace Film Fest in Orlando, Cinema for Peace in Berlin, and Global Visions Film Fest in Canada focus on social change, peace, and ecological issues and sometimes include consciousness-based films. One exception is the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, which started in 2006 and features a wide range of short and feature-length films with an emphasis on interfaith storytelling and children’s themes. One of last year’s panels was titled “Visionary Film,” described as “cinema that purports to transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness including, but not limited to, spiritual, mystical, mythic, or psychedelic themes. Such films are usually associated with altered states of consciousness, or based in such experiences, and aim to plant the seeds of transformation in the mind-stream of the viewer.”

New Film Highlights

What should be noted about films in this space is that they are not all created equal. However well-intentioned, they must still meet a variety of criteria that include good storytelling, high production values, and a commitment to engage, not lecture. And there will always be well-meaning films that come off as “workshops in a can,” featuring endless talking heads and a blizzard of information that, while sometimes effective (see The Secret and its presumptive sequel, Tapping the Source), can lose their impact if not artfully presented and given space to breath. Add to this list films that ask big questions (“Why am I here?”) and come up with few definitive answers. In a review of recent spiritual movies, including The Nature of Existence, Oh My God, and The Human Experience, EnlightenNext magazine editors write, “In our pluralistic age in which giving equal voice to every possible perspective is usually prioritized over finding a higher synthesis between them, it’s no wonder that these films struggle to provide more than a survey of the world’s many belief systems . . . they ultimately yield little more than the latest echo of the 1960s refrain that, in spite of our diversity, we are all one.” This is not a bad message, of course, but however entertaining the journey, these films don’t always succeed in taking viewers into deeper realizations of ultimate truths that reach them at a visceral level.

All that being said, in the realm of transformative media, I’m happy to report that a number of new films have recently emerged that feature high production values, good storylines, and inspirational messages. Here are three I’ve seen, followed by a few others of note:

I Am


This new movie by industry wunderkind Tom Shadyac – the man who discovered Jim Carrey – has been attracting a lot of attention and for good reason. After a life-threatening battle with post-concussion syndrome, this award-winning writer/director of such Hollywood blockbusters as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar, Liar, and Bruce Almighty had a realization: “If I was going to die,” he reflected,“what did I want to say before I went?” His answer: “I wanted to tell people what I had come to know.” Calling the movie “his alarm clock” and building it around the questions What’s wrong with the world and What can we do to fix it?, Shadyac interviews a wide range of scientists and thinkers while interweaving his own journey of discovery. What impresses about the film is how well-thought-out it is: challenging conventional science, celebrating positive psychology and the new science of interconnectedness (featuring the work of IONS and HeartMath), honoring the contributions of philosophy and poetry, and not shying away from hard-nosed criticisms of our institutionalized pathologies.

The film has been making the rounds at festivals, universities, and other non-cinematic venues and is scheduled for theatrical release in ten major American cities starting February 28. While Shadyac’s industry profile and passion have given the film a boost and he has plenty of distribution connections, the ultimate future of the film will pivot on how much interest it attracts during the preliminary rollout. Worth noting is that Shadyac walks his talk – he moved out of his 17,000-square-foot estate in Pasadena and into a trailer park, rides a bicycle to work, and funds numerous charities.

Wake Up

Jonas Elrod was living a relatively normal life as an independent producer/director of commercials and music videos when strange things started to happen – visions and apparitions showing up at all times of the day that came from nowhere, showed up anywhere, and started to drive him crazy – or so he thought. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health, though friends weren’t convinced that he wasn’t going crazy. Growing increasingly depressed, he decided to find out what was happening to him and filmed his journey of self-exploration. Aided by his loyal but skeptical girlfriend, Mara, Jonas travels the country (and the globe) in search of insight and answers from spiritual counselors and scientists alike, ending up on tribal lands and a three-day vision quest, which triggers an ultimate realization. Along the way, viewers get the rare opportunity to go behind the curtain of The Ramtha School of Enlightenment and to experience the unconventional techniques of Italian psi researcher Umberto di Grazia.

Elrod’s transformation from baffled overwhelm to spiritual liberation is authentic and touching. It wasn’t clear by the end of the movie whether the visions and apparitions had gone away, but he genuinely didn’t seem to care because he had arrived at a kind of inner certainty of his own sanity and the ultimate beauty of life.


Lifted, also traveling the rounds of nontraditional venues and officially launching in February, is the first feature to be endorsed by TEN. It’s the story of Henry, a middle-school student in Alabama who finds refuge in music from the challenges of his surroundings: a drug-addicted mother; an Army Reservist father recalled to active service in Afghanistan; a racist, redneck grandfather; and bullying schoolmates. A singing competition provides Henry the vehicle for his personal triumph, especially when unexpected tragedy strikes. The movie is patriotic but not political, spiritual but not religious, and features teen-singing sensation Uriah Shelton. Best characterized as “inspirational family fare,” it’s a good example of mainstream storytelling with a soul.

Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death, and Technology

Premiering at Sundance last month, recipient of the Women in Film Award (from Women in Film /National Geographic), and already showing breakout potential, Connected, from the executive producers of the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, is the inspiration of Tiffany Shlain, daughter of the late MD and best-selling author Leonard Shlain (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess; Sex, Time, and Power). Founder of The Webby Awards, co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and honored by Newsweek as one of the “women shaping the 21st century,” Shlain, with the help of her father, set out to make a movie about the many ways that everything is interconnected. Tragically, her father passed away during the filming, which added an unexpected and more meaningful dimension to the film.

Ghetto Physics

This new movie by Will Arntz, the co-creator of What the Bleep Do We Know, and E. Raymond Brown, author of Please Stand Up, is generating media attention for its unusual take on the power games that characterize commerce and relationships at all levels of “civil” society. Its hybrid appeal has visionary Barbara Marx Hubbard sharing the microphone with Ice-T, Too Short, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and Norman Lear, along with the “pimps and hos” of street corner, inner-city culture. The film has been slowly rolling out since last fall.

Beheading Buddha

For an edgy take on the pursuit of inner peace, there’s Beheading Buddha. It’s a one-man show filmed before a live audience about a fictional character known only as “the mysterious aristocrat” and based on the (arguably heretical) book titled The Ex-Seeker by Marc John and the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. This British trickster comedy, spliced with cinematic images of the aristocrat’s worldly travels, comes off a bit like EST with a dark sense of humor: “The New Age market sells [enlightenment] harder than a travel agent sells the dream holiday,” bellows the comic-philosopher showman. “The real spiritual quest isn’t about a warm fuzzy feeling with friends in the forest . . . the shadow has to be confronted.”

May I Be Frank

Several years ago Frank Ferrante, 54 years of age and weighing nearly 300 pounds, wandered into the vegan raw food restaurant Café Gratitude in San Francisco. He was depressed, lonely, struggling to recover from a drug and alcohol addiction, and was alienated from his daughter and ex-wife. He was pre-diabetic, had hepatitis C, drank ten cups of espresso a day to stay awake, and had been on antidepressants for ten years. Part of the routine at Café Gratitude is their question of the day. On that day it happened to be, “What do you want to do before you die?” Frank realized he wanted a new life, and the film shows how he gets there, with the help of the café owner’s son and a few of his friends. Frank’s transformation is not just physical but spiritual as well, though his personality – his Frank-ness – endures. The film was selected for half-a-dozen festivals, and though it has fallen off the media radar, it continues to be screened in venues across the country and will live on through a soon-to-be-released DVD.

No One Dies in Lily Vale

HBO got into the act with this quirky documentary, shown in the summer of 2010. It’s the story of a small town south of Buffalo that is home to forty spiritualists who practice “mystical mediumship” and are “certified” by a local town board. An estimated 25,000 people visit the town every year, which bills itself as “The World’s Largest Center for the Religion of Spiritualism.” Ironically, the movie itself has not had much of an afterlife, though it’s listed in Netflix with an “unknown” availability date.

The Power of Smallness

The role of these “small’ films in helping to shift consciousness cannot be overemphasized. An Inconvenient Truth notwithstanding, big-screen efforts to bring influential books and messages to wider audiences are notoriously slow to develop if they make it at all. According to the IMDB (Internet Movie Database), The Alchemist with Laurence Fishburne is still “in development,” while two movies that have been on the map for several years, The Power of Now with Jim Carrey and The Tipping Point with Leonardo DiCaprio, aren’t even listed. And well-intentioned films that do break the high-profile screen barrier are not always very effective (think Celestine Prophecy).

No one film will change the world, of course, but each one has a particular impact on each individual, and it is their cumulative effect that will keep breathing life into the forces of positive change that show no signs of abating in the face of our escalating challenges.

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  • JeremiahStanghini Feb 04, 2011

    Some really great sounding movies here. I hope they all make it into the "Spiritual Cinema Circle" and get the recognition that they deserve.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • ElizabethHoward Feb 04, 2011

    "Ditto," I belong to the "Spiritual Cinema Circle" and want to see this films.

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    TomRuffles Feb 05, 2011

    You haven't mentioned my favourite in this genre - Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, made by Renee Scheltema. It is subtitled "A fascinating spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena" and I think qualifies as a transormational film. Scheltema I thought an engaging narrator who elicited some excellent interviews. Wake Up on the other hand I found unconvincing, perhaps because I was not convinced that Elrod really had these experiences rather than pretending he had for the purpose of making a film.

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    tannematica Feb 05, 2011

    Thanks for this inspiration!

  • Matthew Gilbert Feb 05, 2011

    Thanks for your responses. Yes, I did see "Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What" and I liked it. I wanted to focus on newer films in this article and that's why I didn't include it, but I did cover it last year and strongly encourage everyone to see it. Here is the url:

  • Neon1 Feb 07, 2011

    Thanks for the article and the list if films. (And thank you for actually reading and responding to comments of those who read and enjoyed your article.)

    I think a little more accommodation could be given to mainstream films. Some of my favorites include Avatar, When the Earth Stood Still (recent title), Phenomenon, The Matrix, and Powder. My temporally themed list would include Man From Earth, The Time Travelers Wife, and Bicentennial Man.

    While some of these movies may not be considered transformational to many, I think their message--if it has gotten through to the viewer--can result in transformational growth. For instance, in the movie Phenomenon, I was moved by the kinetic potential of a hyper functioning brain, as if I had the potential somewhere within my own capacity as a human; as if I had in another life actually experienced those very same abilities!

    Anyway... Nice article! ...and thanks again for your personal participation.

  • Tz'ikin Nin-Ti Feb 14, 2011

    Thank you for sharing these titles, some of them I will definitely try to get my hands on. Feeling inspired! :)

  • virgocurtis Mar 07, 2011

    This is a wonderful development in our culture. Films always help spread the messages that we feel are important and this is a time of transformation so let's share with the public what transformation looks like. May we all connect with our <a href="">Heart Intelligence.

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