Have We Entered a New Age of Cinema?

How Hollywood Paved the Way for the Rise of Conscious Film
What do Shawshank Redemption, Forest Gump, Avatar, Contact, and The Pursuit of Happyness all have in common? Yes, they are big hits. Yes, they have A-list stars. But those aren’t their most important features. Think back to when you first watched each film…how did you feel when you exited the theater? Were you elated? Loving? Hopeful? If so, then you’ve just received a dose of conscious-ness! Most would agree that these films fit the bill as heart-opening gems, but with one kicker… these films get you stoked about living! Who can forget Morgan Freeman’s character Red uttering the now-immortalized line, “You either get busy livin’ or you get busy dying.” Fellow inmate Andy Dufresne immediately abandoned self-pity and chose to mastermind his dream life outside prison walls by such inspiration. These films are but a few in the genre of “conscious films” that change lives, inspire choices, and elevate human consciousness.

According to self-described “conscious filmmaker” David Christopher Loya-Bojorquez, “conscious films” are life-affirming, hold human beings as sacred rather than expendable, and encourage the audience to ponder existence more deeply than their day-to-day routines. Loya-Bojorquez also adds that conscious filmmaking “is distinct from the promotion of any sectarian theological worldview.” It should be clear that movie studios follow trends. It’s that simple. If there’s interest in a genre, movies will get made, regardless of whether it’s Avatar 2, 3, and 4 which are currently in production simultaneously, or the aptly classified “torture porn” horror franchise Saw 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and soon-to-be 7. Like Saw, the Hostel franchise 1, 2, and 3 also subject innocent, unsuspecting characters to obscene amounts of sadistic torture for sport. How could this graphic violence and portrayal of human life as expendable not subconsciously influence the behavior of its loyal fans? What good could such images and storylines add to our world, if we truly want a safe society free from gratuitous human murder? Then there are the car chase/big explosion flicks like Fast & the Furious 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; high-tech gadget movies like the Mission Impossible franchise; and high school sex-obsessed, gross-out films like the American Pie franchise. Combined box office: $6.5 billion! The Saw franchise alone earned nearly a billion. Yes, there is an emotional disconnect going on between Mother Earth and its denizens. Is it likely that everyone will give up high-tech action adventures, gratuitous sex, and grotesque horror movies any time soon? No. Is it likely that a whole new demographic is being birthed by viewers who are shifting their consciousness “palate” from mindless to mindful, gory to glory, and demonic to divine? ILLUMINATE responds with a big YES!

It’s no wonder that some movie-goers are craving a deeper meaning in their films. With the emergence of “conscious film” offerings as the new box office titans, one may wonder, is there a planetary awakening of consciousness going on? Look around. Listen. Observe the latest trends. ILLUMINATE certainly believes it to be true! Avatar, the wildly successful imagination-explosion of film master James Cameron illustrates the living energy connection between humans, plants, and animals…AND grossed nearly $3 billion in box office worldwide! Forrest Gump made ¾ of a billion dollars in box office alone, and Pursuit of Happyness more than $300 million. A rapidly growing number of movie-goers are crying out for such qualities in their movies, and Hollywood is listening, producing such treasures as the Light vs. Dark magical masterpiece The Lord of the Rings series which earned $2.9 billion in box office, the spiritually sentimental multi-faith film The Life of Pi being received well with $609 million in box office, and the preciousness-of-life film Gravity starring Sandra Bullock pulling in $365 million in box office.

Humans need inspiration – it has always been so and will likely never change – positive reminders to maintain hope during the storms of a seemingly uncertain life. It’s what has sparked the monumental rise in all things self-help: from Yoga hitting the mainstream, to Deepak Chopra becoming a household name, to Eckhart Tolle setting records for online attendance in his spiritual programs after appearing on Oprah. Psychic-themed television shows abound like Medium and The Mentalist, and movies about angels and afterlife flourish like John Travolta in Michael and the surprising supernatural contribution from Clint Eastwood in Hereafter. Interestingly, monks like The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh enjoy a rock-star like popularity. Beloved spiritual author Marianne Williamson plans to infuse her unique healing energy into the American political scene by running for Congress in 2014. Williamson commented, “Politics should not be the least heart-filled thing we do, it should be the most heart-filled…When America does what’s right, it’s a great light on this planet.”

A good question might be: how did this consciousness movement gain such mainstream acceptance? If we look at the trends, it was likely aided by obscure spiritual-films-turned-sleeper-hits like 2004’s What the Bleep Do We Know? and 2006’s The Secret earning unprecedented box office and global attention for a film of its kind with $16 million and $65 million in box office. These pioneering conscious films in turn paved the way for cherished spiritual book titles like New York Times best-seller The Celestine Prophecy and Peaceful Warrior to become major motion pictures. 2010’s Eat Pray Love, which earned a respectable $204 million in box office, delighted audiences with its message of reinventing oneself, nurturing the self, and seeking new spiritual food to satisfy the social emptiness of big city life. Now it seems that a flurry of conscious films are peppering the cinematic landscape, with such themes as Tom Shadyac’s world-saving philosophical documentary I AM; conscious food films such as Forks Over Knives and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead; conscious political films such as Patriocracy; and visionary globe-spanning visual-art masterpieces like Baraka, and recently Samsara. Film palates are broadening indeed.

Inspiration is in high demand. We live in dark times and life can feel downright disheartening: the daily news features the latest school shootings, natural disasters, new diseases, murders, corruption, starvation, and warfare. It’s easy for the human mind to adopt a despondent attitude when bombarded by disastrous images. Guided by a positive message however, humanity shows greatness, valor, and uncommon compassion. But, inspiration, and how to get it, has always been the challenge. Film can be that medium. Some look for inspiration in church, some in a new hobby or even recreational highs like drugs, sex, or thrill-seeking. But inspiring the human heart and keeping it open is an ongoing matter. Film and television, for better or for worse, are informing our youth about what is acceptable behavior in this world. ILLUMINATE believes that if more people were feeding their minds with positive films and media, a “critical mass” or shift in consciousness will one day be reached. The public will simply demand a higher quality of film and programming; not a return to the “Gee Wally” days of Leave it to Beaver artificial wholesomeness, but authentic messages unique for our time and the struggles people face day to day.

Some spiritual teachings have taught, “What you meditate upon, you become.” We would ask the question: what are most people “meditating” on daily? Studies indicate that negativity tends to dominate our thinking and especially in our speech, such as a recent Penn State study by professor Robert Schraf, with an average of only 30% positive words spoken per day. That leaves 70% or more of thoughts and words moving through us daily as negative! And in between those frantic moments of racing to and from work, picking up the kids, cramming for that test, road-raging, cursing out the bill collector, and meeting the boss’ deadline, that burst of inspiration in the form of a short film, feature film, or documentary inspires that person to live a better life. Finding uplifting media then, becomes paramount for the morally-conscious mother of 3, or the spiritually-minded married couple seeking to create harmony in the home, or the anxiety-ridden intellectual seeking a soothing balm from a tortured mind.

We at ILLUMINATE believe in sharing messages of hope, inspiration, and beauty, without any bias for a particular spiritual faith, and yet inclusive of all philosophies so long as they do not suggest one sectarian path as the answer to all the worlds ills. Films are now reaching billions which portray heroic events like the NYC police and firefighter crews in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center; the extraordinary lives which changed oppressive political regimes like the recent biopic Mandela; and depictions of superhuman love like the Mother Teresa documentary. All such artistic or biographical renderings of defining human moments serve one purpose: to remind the haves and the have-not’s alike of the beauty of the human soul. Only by this recognition, are we driven to change self-serving behaviors – not by threats, guilt trips, or slick persuasion, but by the personal realization of the beauty within each one of us; a connection to something greater; a purpose in life far more satisfying than chasing money, lust, or fame.

The unfolding human drama on this planet provides ample fodder for countless cultural stories which shape new generations. Whether they are Biblical stories, legends, fairy tales, or simply modern-day heroism plucked from any town or village across the globe, humanity craves inspiring stories depicting the harrowing journey of life and the character traits necessary to triumph over hardship and attain the ultimate: happiness, freedom, and a peaceful co-existence with one another. In this way, the rich human experience with all its pain, faltering, and glorious triumphs serve as a teaching tool for its ever-evolving civilization. And again, film is that medium. What hard-working man or woman watching The Pursuit of Happyness was not reduced to sobs when the homeless single dad whose fragile hopes rest on a high-powered broker job, earns the prized spot after months of non-paid servitude? What high school outcast could not connect to the shy, empathic nature of the school enigma Powder, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, whose power over nature and insight into man’s inner thoughts proves that beauty comes in strange packages? What weathered soul could not relate to the exhaustive emotional trauma suffered by Captain Phillips played by Tom Hanks when he is rendered emotionally helpless from the abusive kidnapping?

What we have shown you here are Hollywood’s big-budget “conscious” film successes. But, there are thousands like the titles listed here that do not boast A-list stars, and therefore struggle to be seen, but deserve to be seen; indeed they must! They are that important in elevating our consciousness, informing our societies of what the greatest human qualities are; reminding us of the beautiful fragility and goodness of the human spirit. Our purpose with the ILLUMINATE Film Festival is to find and showcase cinematic gems which uplift the human heart and inspire all who see them to live kinder, wiser, more consciously aware lives. Ultimately, it is our intention to share films that remind humans who they are by awakening the heart to embody LOVE once more. It is perhaps the only universal “religion” that everyone can agree on.

Written by Miguel Montoya