A Taxonomy of Transformative Media

To help me make sense of the emerging "conscious media" landscape, I came up with three categories of transformation based on a film's storytelling intent: 

 

  • Individual (“Soul Seekers”): stories of actual personal transformation. They are anchored in that timeless mythology of “the hero’s journey” and are a staple of Hollywood filmmaking — but also show up in many documentaries and independent narrative films that profile protagonists facing inner as well as outer demons.

  • Institutional ("Drum Beaters"): the most popular, often characterized as “social change” movies. They present stories of widespread abuse or system failure along with remedies of healing and renewal and are the staple of documentaries and many film festivals.

  • Cosmological ("Mind Benders"): the newest genre of transformational filmmaking. They challenge current theories of consensus reality (“You mean the Earth isn’t flat?!”) and focus in some way on the mysteries of human consciousness and the evolving story of who we are and what we are capable of — which sometimes occurs at the intersection of ancient wisdom, leading-edge science, and logic-defying events.

Each of the films below are "recommended" and categorized

(in chronological order) by their primary transformational intent.

 
Individual: "Soul Seekers"
2009, 97 min.

Jonas Elrod was living an average-guy life in Georgia until he started "seein' things." Growing increasingly depressed and confused, 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 answers from spiritual counselors and scientists alike. He ends up on tribal lands and a three-day vision quest, which triggers an ultimate realization.

2011, 84 min.

Fed up with self-proclaimed prophets from both East and West who dress in traditional Indian garb and claim to represent the deepest truths of ancient wisdom, American-born Vikram Gandhi decides that he can do better and launches his alter guru-ego, Kumare. It’s a brilliantly executed conceit that ultimately, and unexpectedly, turns Vikram’s world upside down – and possibly yours as well as you weigh the ethics of his well-intentioned ruse. Winner of Best Documentary at the South by Southwest® (SXSW) festival.

2014, 87 min.

This extraordinary documentary captures the message and the humanity of the man largely responsible for bringing Eastern wisdom to the West. His book Autobiography of a Yogi was called one of the "100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century” and alleged to be the only book on Steve Jobs’ iPad. The movie also serves up the complexity of America in the 1920s as Yogananda’s message of enlightenment and inner divinity spreads while challenging conventional dogma. Equally compelling is the filmmakers’ account of their five-year journey to make the film and the challenges they encountered as they struggled to understand the depth of Yogananda’s teachings.

2014, 87 min.

This inventive documentary features the life and work of country singer turned brain scientist/sound shaman Tom Kenyon, whose sold-out workshops have a worldwide following. The film joins Kenyon on a global tour from his Orcas Island home to the Broadway stage, the caves of southern France, the symphony halls of Vienna, and the snowy peaks of Tibet – each stop a backdrop to the remarkable sounds of his near four-octave voice. Animation, live performance, and thoughtful reminisces capture the surreal events of this unusual healer’s personal evolution as he looks to both science and spirituality to help explain the paranormal experiences that altered the course of his life.

2010, 90 min.

Frank Ferrante, 54 years old and weighing 290 pounds, was struggling to recover from a drug and alcohol addiction; alienated from his daughter and ex-wife; pre-diabetic with hepatitis C; drinking ten cups of espresso a day to stay awake; and addicted to antidepressants. Then he met the owners of the vegan raw food restaurant Café Gratitude in San Francisco. They challenged him to a six-week cleanse consisting of a vegan diet, colonics, bodywork, and affirmations. Reluctant but desperate, Frank agrees, and the film follows his sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful, journey of physical and spiritual transformation. Fortunately for us, his wry, comic personality – his “Frank-ness” – endures.

2007, 76 min.

In overcrowded, maximum-security Donaldson Correctional Facility in the heart of religiously conservative Alabama, a small group of prisoners, many serving life sentences, are introduced to the rigors of Vipassana and its 100 hours of silent meditation. Whatever their crimes and however violent they have been (and still may be), the inmate volunteers have complex inner lives and a yearning to connect to something bigger – even if only to each other. In the punishment-heavy environment that defines our national prison system and treats any redemptive potential with skepticism, the program reveals the humanity of those who’ve been cast aside and the spiritual insights that remain open to all. Winner of numerous awards.

2011, 77 min.

Eight people spend 30 days in the Amazon rainforest hoping to overcome debilitating illnesses – from Parkinson’s and advanced diabetes to depression and cancer – that defied the tools of Western medicine. Living isolated in huts and working daily with local shamans, they embark on a rigorous regimen of diet, herbs, spiritual exercises, and sacred ceremonies using potent psychoactive substances. In the process they slowly come to terms not just with their conditions but with the spiritual and psychological patterns that may have helped give rise to them. Each story is unique, and each has its own distinct ending. A rare inside look at the wisdom and power of indigenous medicine, those who practice it, and a few whose lives may depend on it.

2015, 97 min.

My fascination with the motivations and dynamics of spiritual communities continues with Stillpoint, a quiet little film about a small group of people who moved to the hills above Santa Cruz, CA, to live communally with Umi, a Zen-trained master. The film follows the group over a two-year period, revealing their day-to-day life and featuring individual cameos of each one describing their history and why they chose this lifestyle. The movie could be mistaken for an homage to Umi but it’s really about each person’s story and the tradeoffs they make to pursue higher ideals. It also highlights the filmmaker’s curiosity about the life of her estranged sister, who has been part of the community for nearly ten years. Unexpected heartbreak ultimately shows how tenuous the threads that keep such communities together.

 
2016, 84 min.

One of the most unusual and ambitious films I have seen, Icaros takes viewers into the deep mystery of the Ayahuasca experience via extensive filming of actual ceremonies with on-location actors and uncanny captures of its hypnotic and healing power. At the center of it all is a young American woman who is dying. Having exhausted all options and paralyzed by fear, she looks for a miracle among the indigenous Shipibo Conibo people deep in the Peruvian rainforest, itself a dying patient at the hands of unscrupulous oil and timber interests. The story unfolds slowly, trancelike, asking viewers to abandon the rational in favor of something different.

2016, 115 min.

Renowned “life performance coach” Tony Robbins allowed Academy Award® nominee Joe Berlinger to film his six-day annual seminar, Date with Destiny, and the result is both mesmerizing and unsettling. Twenty-five hundred people paid $5k each to experience Robbin’s adrenaline-fueled, in-your-face, no bullshit method of stripping away pretense and driving participants through deep emotional blocks. His style isn’t for everyone, but the energy of the breakthroughs captured on screen are in-the-moment genuine and moving – though one wonders what was left on the cutting-room floor.

2016, 103 min.

As someone intimately familiar with the dynamics of groups and their spectrum of diversity, my radar is always tuned up for the outliers. Welcome to Holy Hell. I’m recommending this film not so much for its quality and polish but for the filmmaker’s courage, the audacity of the con, and people’s willingness to fall under the spell of self-proclaimed gurus – further seduced by the community that develops around them. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when intelligent and well-meaning people give up their power to a spiritual ambition that no outside force can fill. Raw footage of the group’s twenty-year evolution, self-destruction, and rebirth are juxtaposed against emotional reminiscences from former members still processing the betrayals. Others remained even after the leader’s monstrous transgressions were revealed. 

Institutional: "Drum Beaters"
 
2016, 127 min.

Working again with HBO Documentary Films, which partnered with his Oscar-nominated Gasland 1 and Gasland 2 in 2010-12, director Josh Fox takes on the big kahuna – climate change. The first third of the film is a devastating depiction of ecological ruin (sea rise, oil spills, mass extinction, climate refugees, to name but a few) bolstered by scientific analysis that suggests there is no way out, leaving Fox muttering to himself, “Overwhelm. Overwhelm. Overwhelm.” But though he acknowledges that many debacles may be too late to prevent, he also believes that the human spirit will persevere. From there he seeks out communities across the globe that won’t accept that nothing can be done and the beautiful ways they are coming together to face down disaster. Whether it’s indigenous tribes fighting Big Oil or local activists defying corporate greed, whether the actions are largely symbolic or merely slow down the inevitable, Fox argues (in a personal and sometimes erratic style not dissimilar to Michael Moore’s) that taking them matters, not just now but for the future.

2016, 89 min.

Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer at the age of 31, French physician/neuroscientist David Servan-Schreiber fought back with research and a powerful will to live. His work became the focus of two bestselling books and inspired fellow cancer survivor Meghan O’Hara (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and Sicko) to produce The C Word. What’s radical about the movie is the un-radical-ness of the solutions it presents to preventing, managing, and even beating cancer – an illness that the WHO predicts will rise 57% in the next 20 years. Narrated by Morgan Freeman.

2013, 85 min.

After decades of suppression by the mainstream medical and scientific communities, there is a worldwide renaissance in the study of ethnobotanicals and psychedelics as therapeutic medicines. Neurons to Nirvana focuses on five of these substances – LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, and cannabis. It briefly presents the history of each and then brings viewers up to date on current research and clinical use. The evidence is surprising – the power of these activators to address a wide range of afflictions is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

2016, 113 min.

It’s difficult to face the end of the world with pluck and a sense of humor, but filmmaker Renée Scheltema succeeds as she seeks clear answers to why we’re at a tipping point of self-destruction. She focuses her investigation on the toxin of endless economic growth and the role of the financial system in sustaining those values and goals. (Did you know that a member of the Saudi royal family is the second largest shareholder of News Corp., owner of Fox Entertainment and The Wall Street Journal?) The movie is equal parts thoughtful, disturbing, and hopeful as alarming images of life gone mad share the screen with the passionate efforts of diverse change-makers to make a positive difference. The clock is ticking, the solutions are there. What’s missing is the collective will to adapt to a new reality.

2015, 91 min.

With literally thousands of untested chemicals in hundreds of everyday products (300 chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood!), this uneven but unnerving film makes the case that life is toxic – literally. Incidence rates of cancer, autism, infertility and other diseases have been rising but after years of investigation, the reasons are unclear. Is there a link between such “common” toxins as BPA, PVC, flame retardants, and others and our escalating health crises? This is the challenge – and the frustration. Medical research focuses on the affliction, not the potential sources. Is the chemical industry and its consumer-product allies playing fast and loose with human lives? The “experiment” is that we just don’t know; the tragedy is that it’s possible we never will.

2013, 86 min.

Money: It’s become part of the genetic code of reality. But what is money, really, and what is it doing to us? How did it become so sacred – and profane? This film answers these questions while posing a provocative challenge: Envisioning money not as master but as servant and even a world where it's no longer necessary! No easy task as nothing short of a “system-wide reboot” will do. But there are already signs that such a transition is gaining converts, especially at the local level as more and more communities are finding new ways to bypass the money monster, putting the power of economic transformation into the hands of the people with the most to gain.

2012, 84 min.

Canadian director Velcrow Ripper completes his trilogy of sacred activist-themed movies with Occupy Love, a story of global awakening that takes viewers deep inside the “revolutions of the heart” that have been erupting around the planet. Anchoring the film in the Occupy movement that exploded in New York City, Ripper charts how various political, economic, and ecological collapses have catalyzed globally diverse communities of people to declare that it’s time to create a new world, from the bottom up, that works for all life. It features an impressive cast of visionaries, including Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Jeremy Rifkin, Rupert Sheldrake, Joan Halifax, and many others, along with a great soundtrack.

2010, 80 min.

During a life-threatening battle with post-concussion syndrome, Tom Shadyac – the man who discovered Jim Carrey and wrote and/or directed numerous Hollywood blockbusters, had a realization: “If I was going to die, what did I want to say before I go?” 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 challenges conventional science, celebrates positive psychology and the new science of interconnectedness, honors the contributions of philosophy and poetry, and doesn’t shy away from hard-nosed criticisms of our institutionalized pathologies..

2012, 95 min.

It’s no secret that the American healthcare system is broken, but the current battle over costs and access does not address the root problem: its overwhelmingly focus on disease. This hard-hitting exposé tells that story through the eyes of those on the front line whle reminding viewers what's at stake and what it will take to break the inertia. Fortunately, after decades of struggle, a movement to bring high-touch, low-cost methods of prevention and healing into this “system on the brink” is finally getting traction.

2010, 65 min.

“If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.” And that’s what modern Western education has sought to do throughout the world based on a presumption of superior methods and values. But does Western ed really make life better when introduced into—and often displacing—indigenous traditions and ways of knowing? This powerful film looks at the impact of such an intervention on one of the world’s last sustainable cultures—the Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas—revealing a profound clash of worldviews with ultimately troubling results.

Cosmological: "Mind Benders"
 
 
Classics
2013, 90 min.

The notion of “breatharianism”—people who can live for weeks, months, and even years without food or fluids—lies well outside the biological norm. And yet as this film makes clear, such people do exist, at least according to confirmed reports of personal experiences and well-documented laboratory studies. Director/producer Peter Straubinger began as a skeptic but couldn’t deny the evidence he accumulated, from a little-known yogi in the heart of India to a normal-in-every-other-way Swiss professor. Both underwent extensive surveillance and testing in isolated conditions, confounding mainstream researchers. How is such a phenomenon possible? The answer may lie at the intersection of quantum physics and ancient spiritual traditions.

2004, 85 min.

India is a mystery to many, and even after watching this engrossing film you’ll be left with more questions than answers. The story takes place in 2001 during the country’s defining spiritual event, the Kumbh Mela – the largest human gathering on earth. Every 12 years, tens of millions of Hindu devotees descend upon India’s holiest rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, to cleanse their karma and re-animate their beliefs in a ritual that dates back millennia. The event’s visual spectacle (distilled from 3500 hours of footage) is enriched by a young Hindu monk who translates the proclamations of yogis, sadhus, and other holy men. The lengths some devotees go to show their faith will astonish you, while the crush of humanity without incident will shed some light on India’s remarkable spiritual heritage.

2013, 122 min.

In the spirit of ambitious documentaries that attempt to connect the dots across vast landscapes of cosmic forces and human activity, I’ve chosen Inner Worlds / Outer Worlds to represent the genre (which also includes the darkly hopeful Zeitgeist trilogy and the controversial Thrive). In this one, a monotonic narrator – likely computer-generated – describes a long history of ancient wisdom, scientific discoveries, and interlocking patterns rooted in the idea that everything, from the material to the spiritual, is interconnected within a single, energetic-vibratory field. Topics covered include “the wheel of endless thinking,” the power of heart intelligence, human being vs. human doing, and much more, often highlighted with striking fractal imagery. Demanding nothing short of a revolution in consciousness, the film is a long, speculative, but mind-blowing ride through the mysteries of human evolution. “One who looks outside dreams,” Jung once said, but “one who looks inside awakens.” 

2012, 100 min.

In this boundary-stretching hypothesis, German biophysicist Dieter Broers makes a thoughtful, methodical, scientific case that the next leap in human consciousness will be aided by cosmological forces that researchers are only beginning to explore. Drawing on evidence from a wide range of disciplines, he claims that abilities now considered extraordinary – such as telepathy and ESP – may soon become ordinary, and will help to solve the many global crises that are confounding humankind. Broers’ list of contributors is refreshingly diverse and includes psychopharmacologists, astrophysicists, neuroscientists, the former director of MUFON, and a crop circle expert.

2000, 109 min.

This droll and affecting “buddy trip” from Germany finds two brothers who couldn’t be more different as unlikely companions on a journey of self-exploration. Uwe is a skeptical, chain-smoking family man while Gustav has New Age cred but a miserable personal life. A sudden divorce and a long-planned retreat bring them together at a Zen monastery in Japan. At first it’s a combative lark as each one argues and defends their respective philosophies of a life well-lived – however ironic given their situations. Soon both are put to the test by cane-wielding monks and the rigorous discipline of monastic dedication. Along the way they discover compassion, impermanence, and evaluating one’s troubles from a larger perspective. An unexpected delight.

1993, 86 min.

From the Hopi word for “life out of balance,” Koyaanisqatsi was the first release in a trilogy that illustrated the power of film to expand our senses and explode our illusions without a word of dialogue. The premise in this one is unsettling: Documenting the impact of population growth and technology on the natural world. Using an innovative blend of slow-motion imagery and time-lapse footage, the movie juxtaposes “civilized life” against natural landscapes – both pristine and apocalyptic. The musical score by award-winning composer Philip Glass adds to the drama. It’s hard to believe this movie first aired more than 30 years ago and even harder to accept that things have only become worse. It has been preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Not Yet Categorized . . .

2010, 90 min.

This leisurely but engrossing HBO documentary pulls the curtain back on an unusual community of forty spiritualists who claim to make contact with those on the other side. All reside in Lily Dale, a small town south of Buffalo that, since 1879, has been earning its reputation as “The World’s Largest Center for the Religion of Spiritualism.” Each medium is rigorously “certified” by a local town board; those interviewed for the film are as quirky and well-meaning as you would expect. Are their skills for real? You be the judge – or ask the thousands of others who visit Lily Dale every year seeking comfort, closure, and, ultimately, healing from their loss.

2016, 82 min.

If you’re ambivalent about the promise of technology to save us from ourselves, The University may – or may not – convince you. Think big! Be disruptive! Conquer the world! The movie pulls back the curtain on Singularity University, created in 2009 by techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis in an old dirigible hangar on a NASA research base in Silicon Valley.  Every summer dozens of brilliant students from around the world are invited to learn about the cutting edge of not just technology but their own passion and drive. It’s a high-pressure incubator that challenges these young visionaries to birth ideas that in ten years will somehow help one billion people – and make the inventors (and investors) plenty of money. A preposterous goal to be sure that puts no lid on ambition. The film follows the founders of four fledgling companies over several years as they address such obstinate problems as resource waste, automotive overwhelm, and the medical needs of remote villages. Their brilliance and dedication are inspirational to watch, the marriage of idealism and profit a bit more ambivalently appreciated.

2017, 90 min.

Betrayed by a journalist who wrote a hit piece on her and her profession, Toronto homeopath (and debut filmmaker) Ananda More decided it was time to tell a different side of the story. Homeopathy is a unique healing modality (“like cures like”) discovered by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 that has long been maligned by the U.S. medical establishment because its “mechanism of action” doesn’t seem plausible (and perhaps because it’s so accessible and inexpensive). Nevertheless, homeopathy has a long history of success (and evaluation) in other parts of the globe, and More set out to uncover some of the evidence of that effectiveness. Her journey took her to HIV clinics in Africa, infectious disease specialists in Cuba, and a brain tumor hospital in India. There is little glamour in the film but More makes up for it with gritty realism and on-the-ground impacts. Acutely aware of the controversies, she also doesn’t flinch at presenting critiques from a range of hostiles, from well-meaning professionals to mean-spirited skeptics. The result is an honestly produced film that challenges the establishment to let go of its bias and look closer at the potential of this "intelligent medicine."

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