Since 1990 Dr. Francis Lu and Brother David Steindl-Rast have led annual 5- or 7-day film seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Films on a particular spiritual theme (such as Healing Through Gratefulness) are shown and discussed, focusing on the participants’ personal experiences. “Love in the Families Among Us” was one of two themes in 2015.

I sustain myself through the love of family. –Maya Angelou

This seminar explores love in families of different kinds from traditional to contemporary.  With that range in mind, what are the enduring features of any family? How has the concept of family evolved within our increasingly multicultural time, characterized by diverse nations, races/ethnicities, classes, religions, and sexual orientations? What joys and challenges of love continue to characterize families of all kinds? By contemplating fifteen feature films from around the world, we will deepen our capacity to appreciate what Thomas Merton meant when he said: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone…”

Films shown in this order:

The Kid – (1921 U.S., 68’) Chaplin’s tramp cares for an abandoned baby, fights authorities from taking him away, and is finally reunited with the baby and his mother. Jackie Coogan plays the child at age 5. With Chaplin’s orchestral score newly recorded. Shows love within the expanded sense of family beyond the biological family. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 1992.

Astu—So Be It – (2013 India, 121’ – not available commercially) An Indian film about a retired professor with dementia who wanders off attracted by an elephant to join the family caring for the elephant. He is cared by the family as his own biological family search for him. He is finally re-united. The main actor from India Mohan Agashe was present to discuss; he had been in U.S. since late April and left July 13 evening for Germany.  Shown on Blu-ray; the disc was not commercially available at this time, so this was a rare opportunity to see it. It was shown at the Harvard University South Asia Institute on April 29 and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland, on March 31to rave responses.

Giant – (1956 U.S., 201’) Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, this film portrays family across 3 generations on a Texas cattle ranch. Rock Hudson plays Jordan “Bick” Benedict II who weds Leslie played by Elizabeth Taylor. James Dean, who died 4 days after he finished his shoot, plays Jett Rink. It was forward-looking for its time to address racial discrimination against Mexicans and the role of women. Nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor (Rock Hudson and James Dean posthumously), it won for Best Director (George Stevens).

Parenthood – (1989 U.S., 125’) Parenthood is a very major theme for the week, and this film focuses on it. 3 families, 2 with 3 generations. Both father-son and mother-daughter relationship are the focus. With Steve Martin, Jason Robards, Dianne Wiest. Ron Howard directed. 2 Oscar nominations. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 1994.

The Namesake – (2006 U.S., 122’) After an arranged marriage in Calcutta, a couple moves to NYC. They raise a son Gogol and daughter Sonia; we see them grow into young adulthood. A story about family love within the context of acculturation and assimilation. Tells the story of 1 immigrant family over 3 generations, which prepares the ground for the complexities of The Joy Luck Club: 4 immigrant families and 3 generations (4 generations in 1 family). Important father-son and mother-son “I-Thou” dialogues. Important events and flashback memories of the past parallel The Joy Luck Club and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Directed by Mira Nair, whose film Monsoon Wedding was shown at Esalen in 2011. Screenplay based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, who was a Pulitzer Prize awardee for her first novel in 2000.

The Joy Luck Club – (1993 U.S., 139’) A tapestry of the stories of four Chinese-born mother–American-born daughter pairs living in the Bay Area. The four mother-daughter “I see you” scenes are so important. Extensive use of lengthy flashbacks to tell the mothers’ and daughters’ stories. Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay by Amy Tan and Saul Bass based on her novel stemming from her own experiences. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2006, and 2010. This will be the first blu-ray showing at Esalen.

Down in the Delta – (1998 U.S., 111’) The only film directed by Maya Angelou, who died May 28, 2014. It ties in with her quotation at the beginning of the film seminar description. A Black mother in Chicago sends her drug-addicted daughter (Alfre Woodward) and 2 children to Mississippi to be with her uncle (Al Freeman, Jr.) renewing herself through contact with the extended family and past generational history. Has an elderly woman with dementia that ties in with Astu—So Be It. A simpler story to follow after the rigors of The Joy Luck Club. Prepares the ground for Lee Daniel’s The Butler on the next morning.

Lee Daniel’s The Butler – (2013 U.S., 132’) 3 generations of a Black family with the central character being a Black butler working for Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan. Spanning 1925 to 2009, it shows the complexities of a Black family in face of racism, especially in the relationships between the parents and the eldest son. All-star cast including Forrest Whitaker (butler), Oprah Winfrey (his wife), David Oyelowo (eldest son) and cameos by Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan. Based on a 2008 Washington Post article about a Black butler who did work for Presidents Truman to Reagan. Forrest Whitaker won a Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland.

The Kids Are All Right – (2010 U.S., 106’) Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple who have each given birth to a child using the same anonymous sperm donor. The teenaged brother and sister discover and befriend him to their dismay. The man appears at the home, challenging their family system. Nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress. Both Bening (for American Beauty) and Moore (for Still Alice) have received a Best Actress Oscar.

Like Father, Like Son – (2013 Japan, 121’) Would you choose your natural son, or the son you believed was yours after spending 6 years together? Ryota has earned everything he has by his hard work, and believes nothing can stop him from pursuing his perfect life as a winner. Then one day, he and his wife, Midori, get an unexpected phone call from the hospital. Their 6-year-old son, Keita, is not ‘their’ son – the hospital gave them the wrong baby. Ryota is forced to make a life-changing decision, to choose between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ Seeing Midori’s devotion to Keita even after learning his origin, and communicating with the rough yet caring family that has raised his natural son for the last six +years, Ryota also starts to question himself: has he really been a ‘father’ all these years. Kore-eda Hirokazu directed After Life, a bit hit of the 2013 seminar. Cannes Jury Prize 2013. Steven Spielberg bought the American remake rights after seeing it at Cannes. It enlarges the answer to the question of “what is the family?”

Departures – (2008 Japan, 130’) Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. A young man in contemporary Japan learns the ritual art of preparing the deceased for cremation. Death is treated with utmost compassion and respect as both the characters and the audience view the transience of life from a perspective of beauty imbued with Japanese aesthetic values grounded in Buddhism. A most moving film. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 2011 and 2013. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.

March of the Penguins – (2005 France, 80’) Oscar for Best Documentary. Shows the cycle of mating, breeding, and surviving of the Emperor penguins in Antarctica so we can appreciate families outside of human families as well as the vastness and duration of the earth and its creatures, which prepares us for the next film. Narrated by Morgan Freeman. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 2013.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – (2012 U.S., 93’) “Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year old girl, lives with her father, Wink, in the Bathtub, a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack, temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother.” 
–Sundance Film Festival. 4 Cannes awards in 2012 including the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury: “A brilliant film debut from Benh Zeitlin illustrates the fundamental issues of freedom, human life and parental love with boundless emotion and true originality. The authenticity of the acting and cinematography are present from beginning to end. A true ode to the meaning of life, love and hope!” 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Award. 4 Oscar nominations including Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest person ever nominated). Cast of non- professional actors including the father and daughter.The film returns us to the point of the view of the child seen on the first evening in The Kid with a transcendent connection with all living beings.

The Salt of the Earth – (2014 GER, 110’) Wim Wenders’ documentary on photographer Sebastião Salgado. He has witnessed some of the major events of our recent history; international conflicts, starvation and exodus. He is now embarking on the discovery of pristine territories, of wild fauna and flora, and of grandiose landscapes as part of a huge photographic project, which is a tribute to the planet’s beauty. “Love in the Families Among Us” from a big perspective. Oscar nominee for Best Documentary. Cannes Un Certain Regard Special Prize 2014. Provides a contemplative point of view that will help integrate the week’s experience.

Leonard Bernstein introduction to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – (1979, 6’)
Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9th Symphony –  Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9th Symphony (1990 GER, 80’) in which he substituted “Ode to Freedom” for the “Ode to Joy” in the 4th movement by changing the word “joy” to “freedom.” Filmed in Berlin at Christmas 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein conducted an orchestra and chorus formed from musicians from both East and West Germany (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden), as well as the United States (New York Philharmonic), Great Britain (London Symphony), France (Orchestre de Paris) and the Soviet Union (Orchestra of the Kirov Theater). The 4th movement was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 2001.

Mrs. Doubtfire – (1993 U.S., 125’) Tribute to Robin Williams, who passed away in August 2014. He plays a father; Sally Fields plays a mother, with 3 children. They divorce after 14 years of marriage, and he loses custody of the children he loves. He wants to be with his children so much that he dresses as an English nanny and gets himself hired to care for them. Very moving and beautiful ending. Golden Globe Best Film and Best Actor for comedy/musical. Oscar for Best Makeup.

Jane’s Journey – (2010 U.S., 107’) Documentary that traces Jane Goodall’s life work from studying the chimpanzees to saving our planet. Quiet and contemplative. Shows the love of our family earth and all its inhabitants.

Bonus Films

Children of Giant – (2015 U.S., 86’) A documentary focused on Giant’s theme of racial discrimination against Mexicans. With archival footage and recent interviews of the professional and non-professional cast. Just released on DVD on June 23, 2015

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill – (2005 U.S., 83’) Documentary that shows a man caring for a flock of wild parrots in SF, forming a family with them.

See this page about the original film seminar:

Healing through Gratefulness: A Film-viewing Adventure

More film themes you might want to explore:

Twenty Favorite Films from the Esalen Film Seminars 1990-2011

Twenty More Favorite Films

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.