Filmmaker's videos show the underlying bonds of humanity

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee takes a lesson from his jazz background to make films about 'oneness.' Then he distributes them for free.

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    Filmmaker and jazz bass player Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee in San Rafael, Calif. He has been traveling around the world to make a feature-length film about water.
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Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee discovered the power of "oneness" in jazz music. An accomplished bass player who was performing and teaching jazz by his mid-20s, he recalls with reverence those rare moments when an ensemble melds into something special that transcends the skills of the individual players.

For the past five years, Mr. Vaughan-Lee has put that concept of "oneness" into practice on a larger scale: The musician has become a filmmaker. He has traveled the world producing short films that, while honoring diversity, seek to demonstrate the underlying bonds of humanity. His Global Oneness Project was born in 2005, which just happened to position it perfectly for the explosion of video on the Web.

Supported by the Kalliopeia Foundation, Global Oneness has produced 27 films, ranging in length from three to 30 minutes. The topics range from an Australian aboriginal elder of the Yankunytjatjara nation explaining the unity of Earth and man to a middle-aged woman in Ecuador who has brought gang members into community service.

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Some of the films are simple interviews. Others are more elaborate, with multiple characters and images that provide context. Laced through all of them is a theme of individuals who have committed their lives to connecting people, often to help solve chronic problems.

Films that give viewers a "how to" list of what to do about a particular problem sometimes irritate Vaughan-Lee. "Telling people what to do is missing the point," he says. Global Oneness is meant to inspire people to decide for themselves what steps make sense.

All of the Global Oneness films are available free of charge, shipped to anyone, anywhere in the world. All that is required is a commitment to "pay it forward" and share the DVD with at least 10 people. The DVDs are accompanied by a guide meant to help start a group discussion. Vaughan-Lee often receives e-mails of gratitude.

"Thanks so much for the DVD and the chance to show it here in New Zealand," enthused one recipient early last year. "The film night was a SUCCESS!!!! Full house (seated 85 and had to get out the bean bags and couches to fit extra people on the floor.)" The showing generated funds for a local tree-planting effort, and a later showing at a community theater acted as a fundraiser for a playground shed.

Sometimes a Global Oneness film brings support to its subject. Bob Stilger of the Berkana Institute in Spokane, Wash., recalls receiving an excited e-mail from Dorah Lebelo of the GreenHouse Project in South Africa. Berkana had worked with the project, and it had been featured in a Global Oneness film. "She said someone had called her, and they had seen the video," Mr. Stilger recalls. "They wanted to know how soon they could meet because they wanted to make a sizable contribution."

Some 25,000 Global Oneness DVDs have been distributed worldwide, with an assumed audience of at least 10 times that. The Global Oneness website also has been streaming between 80,000 and 100,000 videos per month for the past year. And that is just a fraction of the total audience since a number of other websites, such as YouTube, also carry Global Oneness videos.

"I can say that our films have been seen, either online, via DVD, or television, millions of times," Vaughan-Lee says.

Vaughan-Lee's road to becoming a filmmaker began in the summer of 2004. Three years earlier he had graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and returned to the San Francisco Bay area. He was getting regular gigs, had started his own music production company, and was teaching at a summer jazz program at Stanford University. But driving home from a class, he recalls, "something in me had changed. I said to myself, 'I need to do something different in my life.' And so I just started opening myself up."

This time of transition, he says, had something to do with integrating some deeper spiritual ideas into his work – facets of his life that he had kept pretty separate up to then.

The transition from music took concrete form in Vaughn-Lee's involvement with the marketing and distribution of "One, The Movie." This independent film posed a series of deep questions to prominent contemporary spiritual thought leaders such as Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hahn.

The film led Vaughan-Lee to want to further explore "oneness," though from a more practical, rather than philosophical, point of view. The result was Global Oneness, an idea he took to Kalliopeia, which awarded him an $80,000 grant to fund his project for a year.

"We get excited about projects that transcend conventional boundaries, such as religious, ethnic, or national identities, and which instead find ... the exper­ience of love that crosses all boundaries," says Barbara Sargent, Kalliopeia's executive director.

Vaughan-Lee enlisted the services of filmmaker Tom Tanquary, who worked with him on the first few projects. Now Vaughan-Lee has embarked on his most ambitious film venture. He's spending the next two years producing a full-length film about water. Recently, he flew to the United Arab Emirates and India as part of that project.

As something common to all living things, water represents another way to explore "what is most missing in all our lives," he says – that universal ingredient he calls our "oneness."

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