Featured Filmmakers: Paola di Florio & Lisa Leeman, Co-Directors of Awake: The Life of Yogananda

Paramashansa Yogananda is both the enlightened being – and the man – primarily responsible for bringing yoga, meditation, and Eastern wisdom and spirituality to the West. George Harrison of the Beattles and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs both cited Yogananda as a major influence in their lives. In fact, Jobs gifted everyone at his memorial service with Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

We’re very luck to have the filmmakers with us on Maui for the festival, and they’ll be introducing the film and conducting a Q&A afterward. AWAKE: THE LIFE OF YOGANANDA screens tonight at 8pm at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.

Lisa Leeman & Paola di Florio, co-directors of AWAKE

Lisa Leeman & Paola di Florio, co-directors of AWAKE

According to the film’s website, AWAKE  is an “unconventional biography”. We took a moment to interview the film’s co-directors, Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, to find out more. 

Q: How did your film come to be?

Paola & Lisa: Yogananda’s legacy organization, Self Realization Fellowship, had been approached for decades by people wanting to make a film about the Guru who brought Yoga to the West. For one reason or another, the time never was right. In 2008, however, an opportunity presented itself with financing through anonymous donors. Yogananda’s direct disciples were passing on and it seemed the right moment to make a film. SRF decided to find a team of independent filmmakers to allow for an outside point of view and “beginner’s mind” in telling the story. It was SRF’s wish to make a movie for the world and not just for insiders. They did an extensive search and we were fortunate to have been selected to make the film. Of course, right after being hired, we looked at one another and realized we had a daunting task before us! Not only was it an epic story, but it would also challenge us, the filmmakers, to distill these ancient teachings in a user-friendly form for uninitiated audiences. Luckily, we didn’t fully realize the extent of the responsibility, because it would have been way too intimidating.

Q:  What was the most challenging thing about making this film?

Paola & Lisa: There were a lot of challenges! It’s not easy to make a film about a saint. We’re storytellers, and good narrative usually requires conflict, struggle, and a protagonist with human flaws. We searched for skeletons in Yogananda’s ‘closet’, and while we found certain provocative allegations along the way, there was nothing to back them up. As we dug deeper into his life, however, we discovered that he faced major obstacles, many of which the public was unaware.

The quintessential “fish out of water”, Yogananda came to the strange land of America in 1920 to disseminate an ancient teaching that had parallels to the Einsteinian physics of the times. Indeed, these yoga meditation teachings would be seen as essential tools for human beings to survive the atomic age. Despite being recognized as a “spiritual genius”, Yogananda would face severe criticism and even racism in the deep South, from those who felt threatened by him and his message. Persecution, betrayals by students and close friends and even financial ruin ensued. He was continuously tested. But Yogananda rose like a Phoenix through the ashes of his demise, not only to regain his own purpose in life, but to inspire others to do the same through his example. There were times, however, when Yogananda wanted to run off and be a hermit in a Himalayan cave…which is how we felt sometimes as we approached the challenge of digging through hundreds of files and reels of archival material, and studying the voluminous spiritual teachings Yogananda left behind, distilling them to something understandable (first to us, and then to an audience). At times, we downright wrestled with it.

It took us quite awhile to digest and internalize these concepts, and to figure out how to convey them in a cinematic way.

We experimented with creating internal states of consciousness through cinematic metaphor, as it was of utmost importance to us that the film be experiential, not merely informational, and that we invite viewers on a journey of deeper awareness and possibility through the filmmaking.

We decided to have Yogananda tell his story through his own words (rather than using a third person narrator), in an effort to create more intimacy. This meant that, in addition to using some audio recordings of Yogananda, we had the privilege of casting a brilliant, prominent Bollywood star, Anupam Kher, to read his words and essentially “act the part”. This also helped to keep alive a sense of magical realism that Yogananda created when writing “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” where he recounted intimate moments of a life that is well beyond the mundane. We also created measured pacing in moments where viewers could come in and out of “cinematic meditations,” freeing them to disengage from the intellect and allowing them just to “be”.

Q: What type of experience do you hope the film will bring to viewers? 

Paola & Lisa:  We hope the film will place Yogananda in the context of his times, allowing for greater understanding of the history of Yoga in America and what this practice is really all about. But most importantly, we wish for the film to meet people “where they are at” on their own individual spiritual journeys, and perhaps help plant a seed to take them even deeper. We want to inspire viewers to become AWAKE.

Q: What do you think our Maui audiences will appreciate about your film?

Paola & Lisa: We hope the film will place Yogananda in the context of his times, allowing for greater understanding of the history of Yoga in America and what this practice is really all about. But most importantly, we wish for the film to meet people “where they are at” on their own individual spiritual  journeys, and perhaps help plant a seed to take them even deeper. We want to inspire viewers to become AWAKE.

Q: What type of experience do you hope the film will bring to viewers? 

Paola & Lisa: Yogananda frequently used the ocean as a metaphor for consciousness, a concept people who spend a lot of time in the water seem to realize intuitively. Yogananda compared the individual self to waves of the ocean, which take form, and then merge back with the one field that unites us all, the ocean of consciousness. We’re looking forward to the experience of screening AWAKE on the island of Maui, surrounded by that vast ocean of consciousness.

Q: What is your connection to Maui?

Lisa: The last time I was in Maui was to film an interview with Ram Dass, for the film Crazy Wisdom, a feature doc I produced, about the Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa. It was a highlight of my life, and I’m looking forward to returning to your beautiful island & the Maui Film Festival.

Paola: This is my first time coming to Maui, a magical place I always wanted to visit.

 

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The Featured Filmmaker series is coordinated and written by the Maui Film Festival’s Filmmaker Liaison and Social Media Director Sara TekulaClick here to see all of the Featured FIlmmaker posts and be sure follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get live updates from the festival.