Personal Transformation: Want to Change your Life? Watch a Film

Any personal transformation needs a symbol, a metaphor to measure our quest against. A reminder that the reward is worth the struggle. Nature offers us the magical contrast of the caterpillar and the butterfly as the model for transformation. It’s a model we all recognize, probably from as far back as childhood – the intense internal struggle that ends in a spectacle of colour and liberation.

Or in scientific speak, metamorphosis.

If you’re looking for 5 Steps to Success or 37 Ways to Transform Your Life, a quick search will reveal a bewildering choice. But what about the more subtle accompaniment to self-development? What about a more cultured approach to metamorphosis? I’ve been devouring films and documentaries since I was old enough to speak. But it occurred to me recently that I may have seriously underestimated how much they’ve shaped my identity. Or how much of a defining influence they’ve had in any number of transformations that have brought me to this point in time.

Take the most recent. I watched the documentary Food Inc. just over a year ago and made, with some difficulty, the decision to become a vegetarian. (I tried it thirty years ago but I just couldn’t cut it!) So what’s different today? Food Inc. marked the culmination of a three year transformation from semi-ignorant consumer to clued-up shopper. From devout carnivore to committed vegetarian. The transformation spanned many films and documentaries: The Cove, Supersize Me, Vegucated, Cowspiracy, Fast Food Nation, Blackfish… This was a transformation that had been coming for some years and although I found inspiration and information in other places too, these films were my companions, helping me make sense of my new direction.

They answered questions, they asked questions, they presented facts and offered opinions. They provided the reassurance that I was trying to do the right thing, but also connected me to others who felt the same way. And we know that connections make us stronger – they crystallize our determination to stay focused, to realize a better…Us.

We know that film has the power to change the world, mobilizing whole sections of society, shifting public opinion and forcing change. Consider Harlan County, USA, with its Oscar-winning coverage of the Kentucky mineworker strikes of 1972. And what about 2015’s A Girl in the River which helped change the laws surrounding honor killings in Pakistan. Or Rosetta, the Belgian film which resulted in ‘Rosetta’s Law’, designed to protect the rights of teenage workers. These are perhaps lesser-known pictures. But think about how the biggies, too, have played a part in shifting the way we see ourselves and others in the grand scheme: Philadelphia, American History X, Selma, Erin Brockovich, A Wonderful Life, 12 Years a Slave, Zeitgeist…

But I believe film reshapes and transforms us as individuals too. How? Film mimics the journey from A to B and its visual and (often) linear progression captures that journey in a graphic and immediate way – like no other art form can. We sit, we get comfortable and the transformation unfolds before our eyes. Film tracks this transformation, this metamorphosis – writers call it the arc of the story – of a character over the course of the film or documentary. Whether it’s a good girl gone bad, a  down-on-his-luck salesman made good or a toy spaceman who rediscovers himself, the arc of the story prevails and we witness each journey, buying into every moment of heartache and ecstasy. Film offers a sense of reality that the written word lacks. And this is why it’s so powerful. At some point, we’ll all be pinched by the many events that make up the range of human experience – meeting someone, being fired, losing someone, failing, succeeding, loving, leaving, dying.

The characters we watch on screen reflect our own characters. They play out our most personal hopes and fears and we witness the consequences without having to face them. And from this process, we learn. We ask questions. We Change. We develop. Gary Solomon, Professor of Psychology at the Community College of Southern Nevada, uses a technique called ‘cinema therapy’ in the treatment of mental health.

Cinema therapy is the process of using movies made for the big screen or television for therapeutic purpose. It can have a positive effect on most people.” The technique is also used in prisons so inmates can explore how their choices have affected their lives and, more importantly, how they can make better choices in the future.

It’s inevitable that at some point in our lives we make the decision to transform, to reinvent ourselves or change the direction of our paths. When this moment comes, the desire to make the change may be simple but the actions required to turn it from an idea into a reality can be overwhelming. Yes, we need a plan. But we need more than that. We need support. We need stories of affirmation. We can be transformed through witnessing the lives of others. It’s possible to be moved by a documentary or movie that invites you to explore a world you never knew existed. Your eyes have been opened, your mind broadened and your imagination nourished. It could even drive you to action. Such is the power of watching someone live out their metamorphosis on screen.

Some independent filmmakers make a conscious effort to affect change through film, with ethical policies and commitments to social issues. Metamora Films, based in the United States and Mosaic Films, a UK-based company, have a desire to transform people’s lives through film by producing pictures that are challenging and thought provoking.

If you’re still not convinced, check out the impact of Trevor, the 1994 Oscar-winning short film that traces the struggles a 13-year-old boy has with his own sexuality. The film inspired its director, Peggy Rajski, to create The Trevor Project, a pioneering organization that offers support for young people who find themselves in a similar situation – at a time when their transformation can be a matter of life or death. Imagine how it would feel to watch someone experience your nightmare, your struggle – and know that they not only survived, they flourished.

Now that’s powerful.


Guest Blogger for Metamora Films


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