Most film festivals promise to open your eyes. The organizers of the Spiritual Film Festival at the Unity Church of Vermont in Essex Junction have something more radical in mind - they want to change your life.
The centerpiece of the three-day, five-film series is Friday's showing of The Secret. The inspirational documentary by Rhonda Byrne features interviews with thinkers and motivational speakers who claim to tell us the long-hidden secret of life. (You can also read it in Byrne's runaway best-seller of the same name.) What started as a manuscript by an Australian single mom snowballed into a trend after Oprah Winfrey featured it twice on her show in February. Bosses have bought The Secret for their employees, reporters from Newsweek and The New York Times have weighed in on the phenomenon, and bloggers and columnists have mocked it.
So what is the secret, exactly? Reverend Giita Clark of Unity Church says, "In a nutshell, it's that thought held persistent in your mind manifests the same reality in your life." In other words, good feelings and visualizations yield good results. Clark cites the example of a man profiled in the film who was completely paralyzed in a plane crash. "He had the intention or idea in his mind, 'I'm going to walk out by Christmas,'" she says. "He's interviewed in the movie as someone who's fully functioning."
For the congregation of Unity Church, this "secret" isn't particularly obscure. In a press release Clark writes, "We chose this movie because it describes the ideas and principles that the Unity movement has been teaching for over 100 years (21 years in Vermont)."
Part of the "New Thought" movement, which also includes Christian Science, Unity was founded in 1889 by a couple in Missouri. The Secret also has its roots in the spirituality boom of the last turn of the century - author Byrne says she was inspired by a 1910 book called The Science of Getting Rich.
Clark, 55, was a founding minister of Vermont's first and only Unity chapter in 1984. She thinks the time is ripe now for a positive message. "Consider how tired people are of the war in Iraq, fear, negative prediction," she says. "People are looking for something to believe in."
In addition to The Secret, Unity will screen New Age classics Conversations with God and What the Bleep Do We Know?, which offer similar messages about the power of thoughts. Two family films with magical-realist elements, Into the West and The Secret of Roan Inish, round out the series, with each film followed by a discussion.
Planning their first festival, the organizers had decided to kick it off with The Secret even before its appearance on "Oprah," says Clark. But the church showed The Secret last year, too, well before it appeared on media radar. "This is a Hollywooded-up, more spectacular film version of the same principles we teach," Clark explains. "Because of the powerful way it's presented, with the music and the drama, it reaches people."
Not that The Secret reaches everyone. Critics of the book charge that it focuses on using mind power to achieve selfish goals, fosters a "blame the victim" mentality, and downplays the importance of good old hard work. On her blog, progressive writer Barbara Ehrenreich takes aim at a passage where Byrne suggests a novel approach to weight loss: "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it."
Clark hasn't read the book, but she believes such quotes are "taken out of context and distorted." She says the intent of The Secret isn't to discourage people from taking conventional steps to their goals - such as dieting - or to make them shun others. "Some people will use the principles of The Secret and become Pollyannas. But as you mature in it, you realize that judging anybody is a waste of your energy and time."
Clark compares The Secret with the discoveries of Galileo, once considered burning offenses. For Unity Church, she sees the success of The Secret as a vindication: "We've been plugging away at this for 23 years here. Now everybody wants to hear about it."