Investigate the mysteries of consciousness | Blog | Independent lens


AWARE: Glimpses of Consciousness is the fourth film collaboration between Eric Black and Frauke Sandigwho are based in San Francisco and Berlin respectively, but managed to collaborate on a film that involved traveling both around the world and through the deepest realms of human consciousness. AWARE follows six particularly brilliant researchers – a brain scientist, a plant behaviorist, a healer, a professor of philosophy, a psychedelic scientist and a Buddhist monk – who investigate the seemingly inexplicable mysteries of consciousness. With stunning visuals suited to this breathtaking journey and an ethereal score from cellist/composer Zoë Keating, the film manages to balance a tightrope between science and more mystical elements.

The film asks and attempts to answer questions such as: What is consciousness? Is it in all living beings? And what happens when we die?

“In the end, we get a touching portrait of a variety of different human beings all revolving around the fascinating, perhaps unsolvable, problem of the mind,” Bilge Ebiri wrote for Spirituality & Health. adds Valerie Kalfrin of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists women in cinema, AWARE is “an intoxicating – dare I say spiritual – experience? – that elicits feelings of wonder and wonder, humility and connection. It is a remarkable film.

The filmmaking duo, including After the fall, on the fall of the Berlin Wall, and fascinating frozen angels both airing on PBS – talk about what led them to explore this gripping subject, how they approached it, whether the film is political, and those trippy studies of psychedelic mushrooms.

(Answers are from both filmmakers collectively, unless otherwise noted.)

Roland Griffiths, psychedelics researcher

How did you come up with the ambitious idea of ​​making a film about consciousness?

The nature of consciousness, the idea behind AWAREcame directly from our experience on the first film of our trilogy, Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth where we worked for three years with the Maya natives of Chiapas and Guatemala. Their deep spirituality where everything in nature is sacred, alive and animated, stands in stark contrast to our western capitalist worldview which sees nature as natural resources, objects to be exploited.

When one of our protagonists, a Mayan spiritual leader, scolded us in an interview, saying, “You white people always see everyone as separate: here the house, the tree, the animal, there you. In the native world, everything is always connected“, she pushed us to turn our camera and examine our own beliefs about nature and consciousness. This journey led us to AWARE.

What do you want viewers to take away? AWARE? Who do you hope will have the most impact?

Eric: It may be strange to say, but in answering for myself, I hope this will have an impact on “people like me”, people who have a deep love and appreciation for science but who crave a deeper connection with the spiritual. Early in our consciousness research, the idea that there was a space of “pure consciousness” was not something that I really enjoyed or thought I would hear myself say. It was the Johns Hopkins psilocybin studies by Roland Griffiths that really grabbed me, when unexpectedly they were the most shocking to my own sensibilities. [See more on this below.]

AWARE Filmmaker Frauke Sandig
AWARE Filmmaker Frauke Sandig (not pictured: co-director Eric Black)

For a complicated business that AWARE had to be, what were the biggest challenges you had to face to achieve it?

At the start: funding. In the end: the pandemic created a situation where there was no need to show it.

How did you approach researching such a vast and complex subject? Lots of reading? Outside advice? How much time did you spend researching?

Frauke: We researched for several years, read a lot, attended conferences and retreats, and considered and rejected various concepts. Through internet research, we found most of the protagonists and then read books by and about them.

What criteria did you use to finally choose the people who “play” in AWARE?

Frauke: We were looking for protagonists open to spirituality, but still firmly rooted in science. With the exception of [neuroscientist] Christof Koch, we did not want purely esoteric or purely materialistic perspectives, as we felt that would only serve commonly known polarized positions and would not lead to new ideas.

What surprised us, as Eric says, is the proximity of the positions of the protagonists [to each other] at the end. All were very open to working with us from the start. Plant researcher Monica Gagliano even immediately offered to come see us in Berlin, as she was then currently on a lecture tour in Europe, partly with Jane Goodall. We originally planned to explore animal consciousness more in the film, but then found out that plant research was the most surprising and newest area.

Plant researcher Monica Gagliano, with Pavlov's pea diagram
Plant researcher Monica Gagliano, with Pavlov’s pea diagram

Do you have a scene in AWARE who is a particular favorite or has the most impact on you?

Rick Boothby’s encounter with God during his experience with psilocybin at Johns Hopkins University and Monica Gagliano speaking at the ocean’s edge about nature’s mystical experiences.

Those Roland Griffiths/Johns Hopkins studies on psilocybin occupy a relatively important place in the film. Was that part of the concept from the start? How did this aspect develop during the work on the film?

Eric: Answering for myself, part of the explanation was part of my own personal journey. Early in our consciousness research, the idea that there was a space of “pure consciousness” was not something that I really enjoyed or thought I would hear myself say. It was the psilocybin studies that really appealed to me when, unexpectedly, they were the most shocking to my own sensibilities.

Here is a calm, well-mannered, extremely methodical scientist of the highest standards, inducing a “mystical experience” in random adults with no previous such experience. Nearly 80% of attendees said the five-hour session was a of the five most important events in their lives, tied with the birth of a first child or the death of a parent. Surprising. Forty percent said it was the most important event of their life. In another study, terminal cancer patients reported losing their fear of death. And these studies paralleled the stories presented by our other protagonists.

At this point, not only was I enthralled and personally hooked, but I thought these startling studies seemed like an ideal starting point to introduce an audience to the same sense of awe that we ourselves had felt while hanging on to the handrail of science.

Richard Boothby and Mary Cosimano Psilocybin Study
Richard Boothby and Mary Cosimano in a study on psilocybin

Frauke: The impression [that] the study of psilocybin takes up a lot of space probably also comes from the fact that two main protagonists at the same time, the psychedelics researcher Roland Griffiths and Rick Boothby as a study participant and philosopher, take the outsider’s point of view and interior on the same subject. As both are extremely charismatic and eloquent, a sort of intellectual ping-pong ensues between them. By interweaving the two experiences, the inner and subjective approach to consciousness and the outer and objective scientific approach are brought together.

Moreover, psychedelic research, which was only recently revived after a long enforced sleep…[long] after the exuberant escapades of Timothy Leary in the 1960s, and currently experiencing a renaissance, we found to be a particularly fascinating area of ​​research with new discoveries and surprises. What surprised us most was how similar the accounts of the study participants were.

Do you consider yourself AWARE to be political, or to explore consciousness in order to be political?

Like many in the West, we grew up believing that science and religion, like church and state, should forever remain separate: science with the knowable, religion with the unknowable – the consciousness belonging to that latest. We didn’t give it any further thought.

But if you don’t actively think about conscience and what it means, someone or a “faith”, a “religion”, a “philosophy” or an ideological dogma will define it for you. Witness the continued rise of populist politicians and fundamentalism in all their distorted forms. Increasingly, they determine what has meaning and what is meant. Defining consciousness is the most invisible yet powerful form of political control. Defining consciousness is also power.

Conversely, it is no coincidence that mystics have always been persecuted, oppressed and killed – just think of the Church, its Inquisition, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the brutality of the “Conquistadors” l sword in hand and their Bible in the other in the “New World”, or ISIS… Anyone who is able to independently experience “pure consciousness”, or, in other words, to have a ” direct line” with the divine, is a huge threat to power and dogma. Experiencing and gaining access to greater consciousness erases the need for mediating institutions, indoctrination and even war. That alone is revolutionary and an inalienable birthright worth fighting for.

Become aware you are aware is perhaps the most powerful and self-liberating force in the personal development of anyone and therefore collectively, in the world.

Matthieu Ricard & Mingyur Rinpoche, Buddhist ceremony in Tibet
Matthieu Ricard & Mingyur Rinpoche, Buddhist ceremony in Tibet

What advice do you have for budding documentary filmmakers?

Follow your dreams. Documentary filmmaking is exhausting, incredibly time-consuming, bureaucratic and financially unbearable, so it’s best to follow your dreams. On the other hand, you meet the most interesting people, you deal with the most interesting, deepest subjects, and you have the illusion of putting something back in order in the world.

What film(s)/project(s) are you working on next?

The third film of our Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth trilogy: A documentary about the coming climate catastrophe told from a unique and emotional point of view.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He’s a movie nerd, cartoonist, classic movie poster collector, aspiring screenwriter, and cat owner.

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