SAN DIEGO – They entered the theater bearing name badges, some carrying cloth bags containing schedules, notebooks and pens, others showing up with only a smile to hide the nervous anticipation that always comes with something new. Couples walked hand-in-hand down the stairway to sit near the front. Others stretched their legs and took seats a more comfortable distance away, not yet sensing that by the end of the week, they will have shared their stories with strangers many times over and experienced some of the most touching films they have ever seen in their lives.

More than three hundred strong, they rose to their feet en masse as veteran filmmaker and Spiritual Cinema Circle co-founder Stephen Simon took the stage to launch the Circle’s second annual Festival-at-Sea aboard Holland America’s luxury cruise liner, the MS Oosterdam.

Spiritual Cinema Cruise"Our product is not the DVDs we send to you," Simon said. "Our product is you – and the connection you have with each other."

Simon, who produced the films Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come, is the face of one of America’s fastest-growing DVD clubs. Since its launch in the spring of 2004, Spiritual Cinema Circle has attracted subscribers from 80 countries. Each one receives a DVD to keep, with each disc containing four heartwarming films – feature length, short and documentary – along with introductions to each film by Simon himself and thoughtful questions for discussion about each film.

In celebration not only of the strength of its subscriber base but also the interest of filmmakers who view Spiritual Cinema Circle as a viable distribution vehicle for their work, the Circle’s film festival – complete with the screening of new and unreleased films from around the globe, all in competition for jury and audience awards – debuted last year during a Caribbean cruise, with great success. The festival’s sold-out attendance came from all parts of the country, and from as far away as Denmark, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom. Michael Goorjian’s critically acclaimed film Illusion, starring Kirk Douglas, won both First Place Feature and the Audience Choice Award. Simon, joining filmmakers and participants in proclaiming the festival a success, says the key is making people "feel like they are part of a global family that recognizes our potential, together, to feel better about being human."

Down to Mexico

That sense of connection was just as strong this year, when the festival departed on April 22 from San Diego for the Mexican Riviera, with ports of call at Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja, and Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta on the coast of Mexico. Guests from around the globe became fast friends with Americans from as far away as Naples, Fla., to North Pole, Alaska. The common thread among them all was a desire to experience quality motion pictures, and poignant workshops by such notables as Circle co-founders Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, and Inner Movie Method guru Viki King, that reflect the love inherent in humanity, and to share that with each other. To do that in a cruise setting that caters to your every whim – tourist excursions, a five-star cuisine, an evening walk with a cool breeze and the ocean at your side – made this film festival one to remember.

"It was an incredible experience to come together with a group of people that are like-minded in creating a community that’s going to support and develop this type of medium," said J.S. McDaniel of Windsor, Calif. "It also was a great way just to connect on an interpersonal level with people and make friends."

The heart connection is a key component of spiritual cinema, a genre of film championed by Stephen Simon. In his book, The Force Is with You: Mystical Movie Messages that Inspire Our Lives, Simon wrote: "After almost one hundred years of filmmaking, most of the outer world has been mapped. It is the new frontier of the inner world that provides the great opportunity for discovery, awe and wonder." At the outset of this year’s festival, Simon said his goal was no longer to argue for the establishment of spiritual cinema as a genre, but to champion filmmakers who have the courage to tell stories with their hearts.

"We’re in a very new time, a new dawning with our hearts wide open," Simon said. "Without emotion, without feeling, we’re not going to get where we want to get in the next epoch of entertainment. Our hearts have to be open."

This year’s films

The feature film Cape of Good Hope, a South African entry into the 2006 festival, was just that type of film. Mark Bamford’s film ran away with top honors at this year’s festival. The three-member jury – New Dimensions broadcaster Michael Toms, filmmaker Tony Dean Smith, and Time Warner vice president Ibis Kaba – awarded the film First Place Feature, and the film won the Audience Choice Award. The film explored seemingly random meetings of people and incredibly deep relationships that sprang forth, offering a stark look at prejudice and judgment, while at the same time proclaiming that "love is what keeps the universe glued together."

The jury and audience award for best short film – Celamy, a 19-minute film about imaginary friends and coming of age – also was unanimous. The short was director Julie Anne Meerschwam’s final project at Columbia University’s graduate film program.

More than a half dozen directors and producers, representing films entered in the festival this year, were in attendance. Rick Stevenson, director/writer/producer of the feature film Expiration Date, a black comedy about a young man whose father and grandfather were both killed on bizarre accidents on their 25th birthdays, and his attempt to avoid dying in the same way, told festival participants that in the end, his film tells us that we should all keep dancing.

"I believe in a compassionate universe," he said, "and this film is an expression of this."

The Festival-at-Sea demonstrated the diversity of film contained within spiritual cinema: James Twyman’s documentary, Indigo Evolution, which explores the incredible gifts of young children today; Conversations with God, clips of which were shown from the moving story a homeless man with a broken neck, Neale Donald Walsch, who listens to God and chooses to have a positive effect on the entire world; Khyentse Norbu’s story-within-a-story, Travellers and Magicians, set in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan; Eli Steele’s powerful drama What’s Bugging Seth, about handicaps and coming to terms with what is normal; Scott Cervine’s humorous Closer Than Ever, about a young man’s encounter with meditation and his deceased father; Terri Edda Miller’s wickedly funny Dysenchanted, which brings storybook characters Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Goldilocks, Alice, Dorothy and Red Riding Hood together in a woman’s support group; R. Dean Johnson’s short drama, Just Pray, about truth, hope and salvation in America’s South; Hank Azaria’s short film Nobody’s Perfect, one man’s search for the perfect woman; Geno Andrews’ short Speechless, a moving drama about perception, judgment and friendship; and Christian Vuissa’s nearly perfect 11-minute film, The Letter Writer, which reveals the truth about one man’s dedication and care for humankind.

On a number of occasions during the festival, Simon expressed his disdain for film schools, and world-reknowned festivals, that will not recognize the power of a story told through the heart.

"It is just heartbreaking what young filmmakers are told out in the world by film schools, most particularly by agents, by people at film festivals, which is keep it cynical, keep it edgy, keep it dark," Simon said in an interview with Edge Life. "That’s what critics want, that’s what studios want, that’s what independent distributors want, that’s what film festivals want. Don’t make movies from your heart – they’re too emotional, they’re too sentimental, they’re too this, they’re too that. Do stuff that’s dark and edgy and inner city.

"There’s room for those kinds of films. I don’t want to say there isn’t. But young filmmakers are intimidated from showing their heart. It’s just rough on them, because there’s so many people who want their hearts to be exhibited in film. That’s the biggest challenge facing young filmmakers today. They’re told that if you make a film like that, you’re not going to get it distributed. The thing that I am the most proud of with the Circle is that we now have a distribution mechanism for those filmmakers, both here at the festival and on the Circle, where they can get those films out to the audience for whom they’re intended."

Young filmmakers

Ever since he was a young boy, Jackson Rowe has always wanted to become a film producer. His dad is an actor. He lived in Southern California, the hotbed of moviemaking. When his family relocated to Ashland, Ore., for the Shakespeare Festival, Rowe thought his dreams were dashed – until he met Ashland resident Stephen Simon.

"I met Stephen when I was a junior in high school and he actually offered me a job working on his film Indigo the first day I met him," Jackson said. "I got to jump into making movies in the middle of high school, and right after I graduated high school, he started the film Conversations with God. I’ve been working on it for the past year or so."

Rowe, now 20, a Festival-at-Sea participant, said the experience of working on a feature film like Conversations "was the most unbelievable experience I could possibly imagine."

"I never thought I’d actually get the opportunity until I was out of college, after film school, but I was given this opportunity by Stephen. From the first moment I walked on set – it was 5 O’clock in the morning when I got there and the sun wasn’t up yet – I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I knew that I would be on sets for the rest of my life. I knew exactly that I was on the right path. I just knew that that’s where I was supposed to be."

Simon Olszewski, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Toronto, Canada, said his current film project was inspired by a chance meeting at a Stephen Simon seminar three years ago. He met the parents of a young man named Scott, who was born without eyes, had cerebral palsy, was nearly deaf and "changed the world without ever saying a word."

"I run two small businesses in Toronto," Olszewski said. "But it’s been my passion for about five years to get into the movie business, because of the grander vision of what’s not available right now through Hollywood, through all the conventional ways of making movies. Stephen Simon paints a great picture for young filmmakers, when it comes to the future and the destiny of how films can be made and should be made. It’s perfect and I want to follow it."

"…To me the simple definition of spiritual cinema," he said, "is when you’re done watching the film it leaves you in a higher state of consciousness. There is a lot of great material out there by many authors who talk about our planet in terms of changing consciousness, switching consciousness levels and moving up into a different reality. The main reason why I want to get into film is to help accelerate that process."

Stephen Simon says he is focused on young filmmakers who can take the torch and keep running, long after he and most of the current filmmakers have made their last films.

"It’s Simon (Olszewski) and Jackson (Rowe) who are among the men and women who are going to pick this up and take it to the next generation," Simon said. "Neale (Walsch) and I have a strong commitment to young people, supporting them now so that when we leave, this just doesn’t dissipate."

Moving pictures

The evolution of humanity’s recognition of its compassion and connection is central to the mission of Spiritual Cinema Circle. Early on, Simon and Circle co-founders Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks recognized the possibility that the Circle could help give humanity a new lens through which to see itself, one offering a less-fatalistic perception of its future. They knew there was an audience that was aching to do just that.

"I always knew that there was a huge community of people who were looking to connect with each other on the level of Spirit and entertainment," Simon said. "This spiritual community is large and diverse. It doesn’t have an ordinary demographic: It’s not an age demographic; it’s not a sex demographic; it’s not a regional demographic. It is a demographic of mutual interest, and it’s huge and widespread and varied.

"That was the initial premise going into the Circle, that we would be able to find a way to connect with those people and for those people to connect with each other. What we have discovered in the last two years since we started the Circle is how deep and profound that desire really is – and how connected this community is and wants to be. You can see it on this ship. At dinner, we have half the dining room for the 8:30 seating, and the other half of the dining room is for everybody else eating at that time on the cruise. By the time our group finishes dinner, the other half of the dining room has been cleared off and set for breakfast an hour and a half ago. Our people just want to hang together. They want to be together – and I see that at dinner every night.

"I think what I’ve discovered over these last couple of years is how deep the desire is for community," Simon said. "As the years go by, we’re going to do more things to connect the community to each other."

Many people who do not even belong to the Circle took part in this year’s Festival. It’s impossible to determine how many films have been passed on by subscribers to family and friends and to determine what effect they are having on viewers. Nonetheless, Simon said he has heard stories that have brought tears to his eyes.

"Without mentioning names, which I won’t do to protect her privacy, a wonderful woman approached me here the other night and told me that she has two young children, one of whom almost two years ago was diagnosed with being autistic," he said. "The day after that diagnosis, her husband took his own life. This woman said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without these movies every month.’

"Obviously, these movies were not the only thing that pulled her through that experience, but it helped her enormously to feel better and to feel more positive and more open and more loved in the world. It sounds very simplistic, and it is simplistic, but the most important aspect of the films is to simply feel better about being a human being.

"When you look around at most media today," Simon said, "most certainly Hollywood films and, oh my goodness, cable television, and forget about most of the things that happen on network television, they’re all about the disintegrated side of ourselves. That exists. I’m not one who believes in the ostrich theory of life, that everything is light and good and beautiful. It’s not. There is darkness in the world and there’s darkness in each one of us. I’m not in any way denying that. But we’ve gone so far to the dark side that it feels like, as a society, that we have all deeply embraced the Darth Vader aspect of ourselves. We need to reconnect with Luke Skywalker – and that’s what these films help us do.

"I believe they help people connect with a part of us that is beautiful and loving and gentle and kind and forgiving. Our films have conflict in them. They are very dramatic at times. There are times that there is very rough subject matter that people have to overcome. But there’s always a hopeful outcome. There’s always a way of finding our pathway through the darkness into the light. And then it’s about asking the eternal questions about who we are and why we’re here. I say that very specifically – asking the questions, and not giving the answers. I may know who I am. I may not. I may know why I’m here. I may not. But, I sure don’t know who you are and why you’re here. You have to decide that for yourself. Hopefully, these films give us all the freedom to do that."

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