Lisa Leeman & Paola Di Florio talk about AWAKE


AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda is an unconventional biography about an Indian Swami who brought yoga and meditation to the West in the 1920s.  This feature documentary explores the life and teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, who authored the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi, which has sold millions of copies worldwide and is a go-to book for seekers, philosophers and yoga enthusiasts today. It was the only book that Steve Jobs had on his iPad, and he arranged to give away 800 copies of it to the dignitaries who attended his memorial service.  It was also a point of entry into Eastern mysticism for George Harrison, Russell Simmons and countless yogis.  By personalizing his own quest for enlightenment and sharing his struggles along the path, Yogananda made ancient teachings accessible to a modern audience, attracting many followers and ultimately helping millions of seekers today to turn their attention inwards, bucking the temptations of the material world in pursuit of self-realization. 

Filmed over three years with the participation of 30 countries around the world, the film examines the world of yoga, modern and ancient, East and West.  While archival material from the life of Yogananda (who died in 1952) creates a spine for the narrative, the film stretches the dimensions of a standard biography.  Footage includes stylized interviews, metaphoric imagery and recreations, taking us from holy pilgrimages in India to Harvard’s Divinity School and its cutting-edge physics labs, from the Center for Science and Spirituality at the University of Pennsylvania to the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California.

By evoking the journey of the soul as it pushes its way through the oppression of the ego and delusion of the material world, the film creates an experiential immersion into the unseen realms.  AWAKE is ultimately the story of mankind itself: the universal struggle of all beings to free themselves from suffering and to seek lasting happiness.

Bijan Tehrani: I have worked with co-directors before and it is always very difficult and even more difficult when you are working on a documentary. How did you guys work together and did you prefer working with a co-director as opposed to working solo?
Paola Di Florio: Lisa and I are both directors who have worked independently of one another. This is the first time that we are collaborating and I think that on a film like this, it was actually just a blessing to have a collaborator, to be able to have a dialogue on some of the deepest thoughts about the meaning of life and where we derive that from. There was so much contemplation and it could not have been a film that triggered us more deeply. With Peter Rader our producer, who became our primary editor, it really became a threesome in a way of observing what was happening, and watching, and taking in all this information, all of these teachings and really trying to sort it out and distill this very complex material. It is complex and ethereal, and I think from a story standpoint, it was a real blessing to be able to have some strong collaborators to be able to do that with.
Lisa Leeman: I would never say co-directing is easy, but it is rewarding. Ultimately, we were so deeply engaged in the material and it is such internal material, you are talking about internal and mystical experiences, and it was so essential to be able to dialogue it out. I really do believe the film is a synthesis that is greater than anything the three of us would have come up with on our own. 

Paola Di Florio: I think also we created a language with this film, a cinematic language. We passed back and forth the script while we were trying to lay down the story, but we were also passing back and forth language about how to communicate these higher planes of consciousness. It really became layered and became more and more sophisticated as time went on and as we deepened in our own journey and understanding of the teachings. I can’t really explain and don’t know if any other film would have attracted that kind of collaboration or if it would have been as important.

Bijan: Having three collaborators also makes the subject of the film 3 dimensional, would you agree with this? 

Lisa Leeman: It was really important to bring Yogananda alive as a person. He is considered by many to be a saint, but he was also a human being, in a human incarnation; so one of our struggles was to bring him to life as a character. It wasn’t commonly known, a lot of the struggles that he endured – racism and xenophobia and betrayals by a childhood friend who was working with him. So again, it was this round robin of the three of us, trying to bring him to life in this tangible and accessible way. 

Paola Di Florio: We didn’t always agree; there were times when stylistically we would have approached things differently. For example the idea of using recreations in this film was something that was challenging and abrasive in some ways. We were working closely with the Fellowship as well, and the idea of having a guru being represented by actors was something that was horrifying and it was all in the execution. So for me, this was something that was really imperative. We needed to represent Yogananda’s early life and his yearning, and the aspect of the quality of the yearning that could come across in imagery, so we did not just want to go with talking heads. Until we actually executed that, it was really hard to convince people, so we had to jump in and trust one another.

Bijan: There are some films that you sit and watch and there are other films that swallow you, where you travel with the film and you become a part of the film. How did you guys manage to evoke this concept through the script and your storytelling techniques?

Paola Di Florio: First, thank you so much. That is the highest compliment, because we tried so hard to make this not just the telling of the story but to make it an immersive experience for people. I think the biggest gift was to be able to have this incredible footage and being able to access the archives of the Fellowship, being able to really dig through it and find these gems in material from the 30s, 40s and 50s, to lay down this historic time period of bringing Yoga to the west. The fact that they had it and the fact that we had access to it for the very first time, and the fact that it was being shared to public was incredible, and I think that this led us to really figuring out how we are going to tell this story. He is no longer with us, the direct disciples are mostly gone, and we did not want to tell the story only through third degree removed parties. So we suddenly looked at one another and saw the treasure of his writings, the vast number of writings: the Autobiography of a Yogi, and all of the other books he had written, and personal letters. We drew upon all of his writings and it was a gargantuan task to do so. We had to figure out the thematic through-line and then try to find his voice in that through-line in the volumes of material he had written, but we also had to make it very personal, so he guides us through. And then we had recordings of his actual voice, which was very impactful. 

Lisa Leeman: From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to make an experiential film. I love your expression that some movies swallow you up.  We wanted to take people on a journey that was Yogananda’s life, but to also create a heart space and an emotional space that could reach people in a deeper place, not just their intellect. Yogananda taught that intuition is a great tool, Yoga has been called a spiritual technology, it is a great tool to get quiet and learn how to tap in. It is used to tune in, and to tune out the static. so we wanted people watching the film to have that experience.

Bijan: For the people who knew Yogananda, he was an untouchable person, and when you think about someone like that you want to ignore that person in your mind, but if you find someone who is like you, it makes you view them on your own relatable level. 

Paola Di Florio: Thank you Bijan, you are clearly a filmmaker because you understand exactly what we were going after.
Lisa Leeman: Films need conflict, struggle and obstacles, and protagonist and antagonist.  There has been so much light shown on Yogananda, and as you are saying we worked really hard to show the human side of him, not only just because it was important thematically but also it does make him relatable. His greatest yearning was not to live in the West, it was to go up and meditate and commune with god in a cave in the Himalayas and he kept meditating on that, and was repeatedly getting the message “No, come back” that the challenge of life is to live a godly life in the jungle of civilization. I find that so inspiring. 

Paola Di Florio: Earlier we were talking about living life or telling the story of a saint; it is interesting because even the exalted beings have to live in the material world and have to live with the confrontation of being human. I think by capturing what he had to deal with – the racism, the betrayal by his friends, the financial destruction of his organization, the misunderstanding of the teachings, the Yellow Journalism of the West wanting to build someone up and then tear them down – these are all parts of the aspects of living life. We really wanted to lay out for the audience the feeling that we are more similar than different. Being human is an incredible experience and something that is really bonding and also it’s the highest place that the teaching brings you to, the place of oneness, that we are all one.

Bijan: Have you decided about submitting this film for the Academy Awards this year?

Paola Di Florio: We all just do that, because you don’t want to say that you didn’t do it, but it’s a big challenge. But yes of course we submitted.

Bijan: I think the film really deserved a nomination and congratulations for making this beautiful film. Do you guys plan on working on any other projects together?

Lisa Leeman: We have our hands full with this film, Bijan, This film was a lot of work and distribution is very time consuming.
Paola Di Florio: With any collaboration, that relationship remains for the duration of the film’s life, and I think we will be connected at the hip for a long time, and creatively we will probably go off and do our own thing. This film has exceeded our own expectations. It is not your usual fare and this film was the number one movie in all the multiplexes that we were playing this week. We are in 40 cities across the US, so it is shocking and it is an incredible testament to what people are interested in. 

Lisa Leeman: What Cinema Without Borders is doing is so fantastic, and so in sync with Yoga teachings.  Yogananda called his first organization the Church of All Religions, and he really believed in an underlying harmony of all faiths, that we are all seeking a certain wholeness, so I love what Cinema Without Borders is doing.

Portrait of the Filmmakers:

Counterpoint Films founder Paola di Florio is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and television producer whose work has featured extraordinary individuals and the triumph of the human spirit.  Di Florio’s films have been distributed theatrically throughout the world and featured in broadcasts on HBO, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, Sundance Channel, Court TV, TLC and A&E. 
The New York Times described her work as “extraordinary” and “poignant.” The Los Angeles Times’ found it “deeply affecting, revelatory [and]gripping.”  The Hollywood Reporter declared that it “should be required viewing for all Americans.”
Her documentaries (Speaking in Strings, Home of the Brave) feature the lives of strong, maverick women who impacted American culture.  Her television work includes producing a TV series for Canal Plus entitled Directors on Directors, featuring unique portraits of Hollywood auteurs – including Sydney Pollack, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Michael Mann, and others – which was given a special screening at the Locarno Film Festival’s 50th Anniversary. Her independent films premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, garnered numerous awards and were honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Writer’s Guild and the International Documentary Association. She has served on film juries and panels, including at the American Film Institute and has guest lectured at UCLA, USC, Berkeley, Stanford and other universities and conferences.  She is also a founding partner of Nerd Girls, Inc., a New Media startup dedicated to creating new role models and empowering young women to enter the fields of science and engineering.

Bijan: Looking through the projects that you have worked on, I have found that you and Lisa, your co-director have something in common, you do films about human issues; can you please elaborate on this?

Paola di Florio: Certainly from my first film Speaking in Strings, there is a pattern and I follow a common theme in all of my films. It is about being the true self, and about not staying quiet, and speaking out. Speaking in Strings is about a person who spoke through her violins. She was a world-class violinist and she had faced a lot of turmoil in her life and at some point she tried to take her own life unsuccessfully. The film tracks her renewal of trying to reclaim her life through her music. That film premiered at Sundance and won festival awards and it went on to get an Academy Award nomination. Home of the Brave was another independent feature I made about speaking from one deep space of truth. It was about the mother of five children who was married to a Teamster in the 60s and left her home and traveled to the South and fought for Civil Rights, for the rights for African Americans to have their votes counted. She was brutally murdered by the Klan. This story has been pretty much erased from history. President Johnson and the FBI came out and said that they knew all of what happened to her, but in truth, we found out ten years later that there were FBI cover ups and an attempt to push her story under the rug. Because they did not want a white female to become a hero at that time. So, we tracked the family after ten years to learn about this woman.

My latest film AWAKE is about the expression and awakening of the soul and the expression of the true self and the higher self. Any way you look at it, it’s about the highest self-expression and the reach for self-motivation. The themes of Counterpoint Films are about making films that empower and make contact with your true self.

Bijan: Your films are always character driven and that is why they are so interesting and not only grab the audience and impact them. 

Paola Di Florio: Yes, we are going into the inner depths of each character. By doing that in films in general, we tell stories, we are storytellers, whether it is a documentary or a feature film. I see it all as the same. Thousands of years ago we would have been telling stories sitting around a fire. I believe that we are much more common and connected than disconnected and different.

Bijan: You don’t view documentaries as a different style than a feature or narrative, so there are not boring talking heads and there is a specific intent with telling a story. 

Paola Di Florio: My approach to storytelling is always a narrative structure.  Therefore story is very important to me and it is probably primary. The challenge is terrific, trying to find that narrative structure in a story that encompassed so many decades and had a massive impact on society.  But essentially it boils down to the distillation of that narrative structure, and all of these films have been sought after as feature films. Therefore I don’t see them as different kind of films, they might just have different forms. I worked for several years on television documentaries and that structure is one way to do it, but my company has told character driven stories with a narrative structure.

Bijan: You are sticking to your beliefs because there are organizations that you support that coincide with the messages in your films. 

Paola Di Florio:  Yes, that is why I am excited about Cinema Without Borders because I am very excited about cinema as a tool for bringing the world together, self-expression, and unity. In a certain sense, being world ambassadors through filmmaking. I was asked to be a jury member on a women’s film festival in Herat, Afghanistan. The festival is being led by a woman who is just so brave, Roya Sadat. She is the first female filmmaker in Afghanistan who actually wrote her script while under house arrest by the Taliban. I was asked initially to make a film about Nerd Girls and it turned into something much bigger than that and I became a founder of Nerd Girls Inc, a company that creates content that is inspiring young women to be engaged to solve the big problems of the world. They are working with Dr. Karen Panetta, a terrific talented professor at Tufts University who received a presidential award, and Karen Johnson, an award winning documentary filmmaker. The three of us founded this company to create new content that just didn’t exist out there.

LISA LEEMAN (Director)
Lisa Leeman believes that strong narrative and character-driven films can change the world, one story at a time, and that the path to social change is through the heart.  Lisa’s groundbreaking first film, Metamorphosis: Man into Woman, won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival and garnered the top broadcast ratings on POV, PBS’s documentary showcase.  Roger Ebert named Leeman’s One Lucky Elephant as one of the best documentaries of 2011.  That film was broadcast on OWN as part of Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary of the Month Club, and selected for the U.S. State Department’s American Documentary Showcase. 
For the last twenty five years, Lisa has directed, produced, written and edited feature and short documentaries.  Other notable works include directing the feature doc Out of Faith (PBS) & producing the feature doc Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa (Alive Mind Cinema).   Lisa has collaborated with many acclaimed filmmakers, including Haskell Wexler, the renowned cinematographer with whom she co-directed Who Needs Sleep (Sundance, 2006). 
Lisa spent a decade editing award-winning social issue documentaries, including the acclaimed Made in LA, and films for Renee Tajima-Pena; Michele Ohayon; Micha Peled; Stanley Nelson, and others.  Lisa has served as a judge at the Sundance Film Festival, the president of the International Documentary Association, and on the boards of the IDA and the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. She sits on the faculty of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and has taught master classes on documentary filmmaking in China, Portugal, Jordan, & Malawi.  In addition to Sundance’s Filmmakers’ Trophy, honors include an Emmy nomination and the once-in-a-lifetime American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Grant.

Bijan: Are you are believer in the idea that cinema can possibly change lives?

Lisa Leeman: Absolutely, I think that good cinema generates empathy and empathy changes lives, and opens minds and opens hearts — it changes attitudes and can break down stereotypes — so cinema can be very transformative.

Bijan: When you look at the history of cinema, people often shot films during hard times and showed that cinema do not only change lives but it also teaches us about life.

Lisa Leeman: Cinema is powerful and visceral and can reinforce stereotypes as well as breaking them down. I teach part time at USC at the School of Cinematic Arts and we talk about becoming aware of your own biases, which are often unconscious. As artists and filmmakers we have to be aware of our background and our culture, and we have to understand that in terms of how we present them in films.

Bijan: When I look at your filmography, it looks like you are making a conscious choice to work on films that help people have a better understanding about the world around them. 

Lisa Leeman: For a long time I did not see the link between my films — my first film (Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman) was about someone going through a sex change, going from male to female. I also made a film about Holocaust survivors, (Out of Faith), and my next film was One Lucky Elephant, about a circus producer retiring his elephant. Someone suggested to me that I am interested in Identity, and it’s true.   I am also drawn to character-driven films about people grappling with issues in their lives that are often representative of bigger issues that society is also grappling with. I say I make “sideways social-issue films” — they are not overtly activist films, but they do focus on the human condition.

Bijan: I see that you have traveled and taught documentary filmmaking in several countries, how have these experiences helped shape your filmmaking?

Lisa Leeman: A great question.. I love traveling and I have found a way to marry my love of travel with filmmaking and teaching, so I have filmed in Australia and Tibet and Russia and the Ukraine…I can’t draw a literal overt line to the travel and themes in my work, but I can say the privilege is that it takes me out of the American mindset. Everywhere I travel I see American films, and the American culture can unfortunately be so dominant in world culture, so it is great to be able to see filmmaking from another perspective.

Bijan: There is another connection in your films I interviewed the director of The Crazy Wisdom and it has some sort of connection to Awake as far as dealing with a character and dealing with someone who is dealing with spiritual subjects. 

Lisa Leeman: I didn’t realize that you had interviewed Johanna Demetrakas, the director of Crazy Wisdom, which I produced  That film was a portrait of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, who is often credited with planting Tibetan Buddhism in the United States.  On the surface the characters in the two films could not have been more different (Trungpa Rinpoche & Paramahansa Yogananda)  Trungpa was considered very transgressive, he drank a lot of alcohol, he had intimate relationships with his students and yet he was utterly devoted to the Dharma and spreading the eastern teachings. With Yogananda, we turned over every stone and we saw no misbehavior. He was also completely devoted to the spiritual teachings. So I did find commonality and it was interesting to work on the biographies of these two teachers, who lived their lives in very different ways but yet were both so deeply committed to teaching their spiritual traditions.

Bijan: When you are making a documentary it is clear that you are not sticking to documentary conventions, you were just looking to tell a story in a very productive way and this is what makes your films exceptionally exciting and fun to watch.

Lisa Leeman:  Film is such an interesting and complex medium, you are dealing with characters that have to have an arc over time, and an antagonist and protagonist.   That alone is not enough because cinema is a visual and sound medium and you have to pull in all these different sensory elements and figure out how to convey a story in a way other than words. That is what elevates a film. I am also really interested in the grey areas of life. Our culture is way too polarized, we are obsessed with black and white and I am really interested in the grey areas where the obvious choice and the truth are not so clear cut.  That is what I am interested in pulling out in my films.

* Will follow up this story with a review of the film next week.                                     


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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