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Monte Grande: What is life?
A Film by Franz Reichle
Featuring Francisco Varela and H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, XIV Dalai Lama
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film stillHow is it possible for body and mind to exist as an integrated whole? The important Chilean neurobiologist Francisco Varela devoted his entire life - from childhood to death - to this question.

Varela died in Paris in May 2001 at the age of 54. He was a leading figure in the field of cognitive science who became known for his work on autopoiesis, a definition of life based on autonomy.

auto = self
poiesis = creation or production
autopoiesis = self-making, self-creating

In the last few months before Varela's death, noted filmmaker Franz Reichle (THE KNOWLEDGE OF HEALING) had several intense conversations with him on themes central to his life and work, and was able to record these discussions.

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A main focus for Varela's work was the idea of building a bridge between the discoveries of the mind in science and the discoveries of the mind through experience. After a simple childhood in the village of Monte Grande in the north of Chile, then a rapid, successful period of study at Harvard, Pinochet's 1973 coup, during which his father-in-law and friends were murdered, confronted Varela with death for the first time in his life.

Varela was also one of the main founders of Mind & Life (www.mindandlife.org), a forum that brought together a group of scientists and the Dalai Lama every two years to compare western research findings with the discoveries of Buddhist teachings, to pursue new directions for western research, and, on the other hand, to give new impulses to the Buddhist tradition.

MONTE GRANDE's structure is based on Varela's non-linear thinking and focuses on his concepts of autopoiesis, ethics, consciousness, meditation and dying (see links below to background information about these and other ideas). The film also includes narrative accounts and reflections from Varela himself, his family (former partners and children), leading scientists, friends and thinkers, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Heinz von Foerster (the father of cybernetics), Jean-Pierre Dupuy (philosopher and founder of Center for Research in Applied Epistemology at the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris), Harvard professor Anne Harrington (Co-Director of Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative), Humberto Maturana (biologist, joint developer of the autopoiesis idea), and others.

film still

Three key concepts shape the film: the relationship between body and mind (embodiment), the meaning of self-responsibility (autonomy) and spirituality. Binding these concepts is Varela's strong humanistic commitment, his clear and realistic way of thinking, his warm-heartedness and the candour he brought to his relationships - with his wife, children, friends, students and colleagues - which made him an exceptional man and a great catalyser of ideas. He once said, "Ideas fly through the air; one only needs to be open in order to catch, understand and develop them."

"A gentle and moving film. It is so refreshing to see a movie that whilst presenting challenging and provocative ideas does so without a hint of aggression."—Leonardo Digital Reviews

"Varela was one of the great minds and grand souls of our day. MONTE GRANDE carries his spirit for all time."—Daniel Goleman, Psychologist & Author of Emotional Intelligence

"In art and detail, this film brings us a profound look into the mind of one of the great thinkers of the 20th century."—Joan Halifax, Anthropologist, Honorary Research Fellow at Harvard and Head Teacher at the Upaya Zen Center

"A powerful and beautiful achievement!"—Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, MIT

"Recommended!"—Educational Media Reviews Online

"In MONTE GRANDE one gets to know Varela in a way that I would not have believed possible. This is the story of a man that is told affectionately and gently, touchingly and astutely. This film succeeds - if only for 80 delightful minutes - in deconstructing the prevailing division between science and art."—Bernhard Porksen, Professor of Communications Science, University of Hamburg

Best Documentary, 2005 ECOFILMS Rhodes Film Festival
2005 Vancouver International Film Festival

80 minutes / / Color
English / English subtitles
Release: 2005
Copyright: 2005

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

For individual consumers (home video)

This DVD is sold for private, home use only.

This title is also available online from:

Subject areas:
Biographies, Biology, Buddhism, Death and Dying, Health Issues, History of Science, Life Sciences, Neuroscience & Neurology, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Science

Related Links:
Background Info on Francisco Varela
Background Info on Key Figures
Filmmaker's Statement
Bonus Features on DVD

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