Don’t Worry, Film Happy

After more than twenty years in the business, I decided to quit my career as a costume designer. I was profoundly depressed by the excessive violence, sex, and emptiness in the scripts I was seeing and the movies I was working on. I have long recognized the power of cinema, and I had come to realize that I no longer wanted to be part of creating entertainment that makes me and others feel hopeless. And so, I have redirected my career objective toward producing spiritually uplifting entertainment that celebrates the diversity of our culture.

When I first made this commitment I felt completely isolated—my contacts in the business did not understand my new vision, and even those who did were convinced that the idea would never fly, and that in order to survive you had to continue to conform. One successful primetime producer told me after a pitching session that I would do best to seek out others who shared my vision and to produce my idea of “spiritual entertainment” with them. So that’s what I did.

Since 9/11, I have discovered, interest in meaningful and spiritually relevant entertainment has greatly increased. People in the business are talking about it and audiences are seeking it—even though “it” is not always easy to define. To me, spiritual entertainment is the art of moving images that uplifts and empowers the audience, and is life affirming in that it conveys messages of hope. This increased and overwhelming interest in spiritual entertainment is fast becoming more organized, and I have recently found myself part of an ever growing and inspired community dedicated to making and celebrating Spiritual Cinema.

Stephen Simon, a successful Hollywood producer of dozens of films including Somewhere in Time, All The Right Moves, and What Dreams May Come, and who has now written a book, The Force is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives, is widely recognized as the pioneer of Spiritual Cinema. His 2001 directorial debut, Indigo, is considered within the Spiritual Cinema community as the first official film produced under the banner of Spiritual Cinema. And The Force is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives has recently inspired DJ’s Video Store in Ashland, Oregon to create the very first ever Spiritual Cinema section of a video store.

Stephen’s main message that media can inspire our lives has become a beacon calling for industry recognition of Spiritual Cinema as a new and legitimate genre. His website, MovingMessagesMedia.com, explains Spiritual Cinema in this way: “Spiritual Cinema examines who we are and why we are here, and illuminates the human condition through stories and images that inspire us to explore what we can be as humanity when we operate at our very best. Spiritual Cinema reflects our beliefs and values and illustrates their impact upon our lives and our society. In this context, spiritual refers not to religion but to the unseen divine essence that is life force itself. History has revealed that individuals or cultures that lose their connection to this essence become devoid of love, respect and compassion.”

And Stephen is not alone in his quest to examine and create spiritually meaningful work. The documentary filmmaker Kevin Peer, whose films have won over forty national and international festival awards, started his organization, The Institute for Sacred Cinema (www.sacredcinema.org), almost four years ago with the purpose of a continued mission to produce and teach the principles of “sacred cinema.” The impetus of Sacred Cinema is nearly the same as that of Spiritual Cinema, and Kevin explains a distinction that lies merely between the words “sacred” and “spiritual.” “‘Spiritual’ wasn’t the word for me because it focuses more on something unseen, while ‘sacred’ refers to something more immediate, that which we hold dear and precious.” This very concept is a major touchstone of Spiritual Cinema.

Through his work with various native cultures, including the Wodaabe and the Navajo, Kevin has been able to witness how certain cultures cultivate and embody spirituality. From the beginning of his career, Kevin says, he has been inspired by the notion that “images, sound, and story bypass the conscious mind and go directly to work in the unconscious.” He further explains, “Indigenous cultures know this and use it to create culture stories that become forces of life.”

For many years I have known the stage and screen actress Lonette Mckee, who has appeared in numerous films including Sparkle and Jungle Fever, and in Broadway productions such as Showboat. And I have always known her to be a deeply spiritual performer and person. And now, she, too, has chosen to focus her attention more determinately toward writing and directing spiritually relevant films and music. She is currently preparing to direct a feature film that she has written, DreamStreet, which is about a successful young woman driven by tragedy to seek refuge on the fringes of society within a desperate community of misfits. “I am not afraid to explore the dark places we go to in our lives,” Lonette says. “But I do feel a responsibility to show the way out of the darkness.”

Different filmmakers have different reasons for creating within the genre of Spiritual Cinema. Nick Day, a documentary filmmaker who is currently in the process of seeking distribution for his film, Kumbh Mela, shelved another project in 2001 when he heard that the Maha Kumbh Mela gathering in India would be the largest congregation of pilgrims ever to converge in one place. His interest in the nature of spiritual inclination drew him to the event. “Kumbh Mela’s inclusive unity of humanity makes it captivating, [and] the spectacle is underscored with meaning,” Nick explains. “[Making a film about it] is not a mission for me, but rather an invitation for audiences to have a look, to be open.”

Manech Ibar, a producer of New York City Spirit, my documentary film about diverse spiritual expression in New York City, decided to launch his new company Vth Season so that he could better examine the connections between all people and beings on the planet. His is a global mission born from a conviction that all life forms are connected, and experience universal effects. Both Day and Ibar’s projects communicate qualities of Spiritual Cinema by emphasizing freedom of self-expression, a lack of judgment, and the encouragement of inclusion, respect for and celebration of difference in human expression.

Kevin Peer filming Crater Lake Story at Crater Lake, Oregon.


Up until now, audiences have had to discover films with spiritual resonance by word of mouth or perhaps even by intuition—films like Ghost, which would qualify as Spiritual Cinema, but was advertised as a love story, or Field of Dreams, which was marketed as a sports picture. I am not regularly drawn to sports pictures, but I was glad that I chose not to pass up the opportunity to see Field of Dreams. Its clear message that following your heart will lead to success—“if you build it they will come”—speaks directly to the core of Spiritual Cinema. And the recent film Whale Rider is what Stephen Simon calls “a metaphor for the majesty of this epoch into which we have all chosen to be born . . . a film . . . amid the clutter of summer sequels and action franchises that truly illuminates the very soul of Spiritual Cinema.”

It is, of course, vital that the industry recognize the genre of Spiritual Cinema, because until that happens and the audience’s desire for this kind of entertainment is well established, the money to make the films will not be available. Identifying film genres such as Horror, Romance, Comedy, or Action may be fairly easy, but identifying Spiritual Cinema might prove more elusive. For example, religious-themed films do not automatically fall under the category of Spiritual Cinema simply by virtue of their religious content. For now, though, while a clear and precise definition of the genre might elude us, advocates of the genre are confident in the fact that we know it when we see it, and satisfied with the understanding that Spiritual Cinema is, in broad terms, about the mystical effects and personal transformation that certain films engender.

Since I was a teenager, I have been very aware of how entertainment makes me feel. Once I sewed a dress while watching a nihilistic 1960s art flick on TV, and I was so depressed by it that afterwards, I could never bring myself to wear the dress because it reminded me of that film and the feeling it evoked in me. And I’m not alone in this kind of visceral reaction to certain films and media. I recently spoke with a young couple who expressed regret for taking their fourteen-year-old son to see Once Upon A Time In Mexico—they both felt like they needed to take a bath after watching all the violence in the film.

Another important point within the evolving discussion of Spiritual Cinema, particularly in regard to filmmakers, is quality of life in the workplace. If we are striving to create something magical, meaningful, and uplifting we cannot suffer in the process. Stephen Simon talks about this aspect a good deal. He, like many who are both interested and not interested in Spiritual Cinema, feels the inequities in the Hollywood movie making industry can be destructive for a lot of talented artists. This, in part, is what has motivated Stephen to launch a multi-pronged campaign (via his website) that will promote awareness of Spiritual Cinema, and demonstrate new models for fundraising, development, production, and distribution within the genre. Currently, his site offers teleconferences, lectures, courses, newsletters, and even a new film distribution outlet, SpiritualCinemaCircle.com, which makes the work of video and filmmakers directly available through the internet.

In the last year, a diverse group of national and international professionals and interested audience members have attended Stephen’s teleconference calls, which are meant to provide a safe space wherein to foster a fertile, inspired, and visionary discussion about industry politics, technology, films, and the future. Writers are encouraged to pitch all manner of ideas—either raw or well developed—that are received by a welcome and supportive audience. Producers, directors, actors, musicians, crew, and lawyers are able to connect with one another. It is a network of brainstorming and support for individual projects and for the overall community mission.

Grant provider Carole Dean, creator of the Roy W. Dean Grant (www.fromtheheartproductions.com), is a loyal supporter of Spiritual Cinema, which she believes is the most important film genre at this time. “Think of how you felt when you saw Seabiscuit,” Dean explains. “Whale Rider, The Full Monty, Somewhere in Time, What Dreams May Come, Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz—these films are all in the area of forgiveness and transcendence. We love these films and they touch our hearts each time we see them. This is what people want, to be raised from their current level of fear or anger and to be able to experience these higher feelings of optimism, hopefulness, and inspiration, even if it is only for two hours.”

So how does an audience find Spiritual Cinema and venues where the genre is celebrated and embraced? As far as film festivals go, so far the only festival that focuses exclusively on spiritual content is The Damah Film Festival in Seattle, Washington. The Damah website (www.damah.com) describes its festival as “a voice for artists to describe the human experience dealing with spiritual themes.” Even as there are other festivals that cater to certain disciplines, such as Christian views or the Buddhist perspective, the Damah Festival, which is now in its third year, is the only festival open to a diverse array of spiritual concepts. It is important to note, however, that the Damah only accepts short film submissions.

For longer films and other media, Tory Jay Berger of spiritualPR.com has developed the Hollywood Spiritual Film and Entertainment Festival (www.hsff.com), which kicked off in March and will continue through to September. The festival’s ambitious program schedule includes regular screening events, as well as ongoing seminars, workshops, and networking opportunities.

As part of the newly formed Institute for Spiritual Entertainment, Inc. (ISE), members of the Spiritual Cinema community are gathering in person to create dozens of active ISE associated communities around the world. The LA community is already vigorously engaged with hundreds of members, and is building a website, looking for funding, and considering joint production projects. But there is still much work to be done. Media has always been used effectively for purposes of propaganda and to sell product. Imagine the power of media, film specifically, as a tool to create harmony and empower individuals or groups in an optimistic way.

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