Marla Estes: Making the unconscious conscious

Marla Estes thinks that movies can teach us a lot about ourselves. In her popular classes for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and in smaller, ongoing groups, she encourages people to look at films through a personal, psychological lens to learn more about human nature.

This term, her OLLI class is titled "Awakenings through Film," and it takes place at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland. Comments are sometimes personal and discussions grow deep.

Her OLLI classes are often full, with the majority of her students returning to take another long look at films.

She also is a volunteer screener in the Narratives, Shorts and Animation categories for the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

She moved to Ashland 11 years ago from Paris, where the Los Angeles native lived for 16 years while raising three sons.

Favorite aspects about Ashland: Its size. It's small but not too small, and its beauty.

Can you give us a few career highlights? I came to teaching late in life. I got my master's degree in transpersonal psychology in 2005. Since then I have evolved my classes in a totally creative way. My development as a teacher-facilitator during the past six years has been its own ongoing highlight.

How do films reveal information about us? All my classes, whether at OLLI or privately, are geared toward using feature films to have a look at ourselves. It's not therapy or group therapy, but it can be very therapeutic.

Using film allows people to see themselves, their feelings and behaviors, at a comfortable distance. Paradoxically, often they can recognize themselves more clearly and directly in that way.

Why do you volunteer to teach at OLLI?: I teach at OLLI every term because it feeds me. I'm sure I do it more for myself than for the students. I appreciate the people who show up; their sense of humor, intelligence and desire to ask and explore profound questions about themselves and others.

Even though the class size is large — 50 to 75 people — many of them attend every term so there is an ease and comfort among the group. They are relaxed and go more deeply from the very first day of class.

I've also founded an organization called the School of the Examined Life in which I teach in a small-group setting, 10 students.

What facts about films get your students' attention?: The feedback I get most often it is not so much what I do, although it is unusual, but how I do it. Doing my own inner work and sharing my own inner processes and experiences seems to give people not only permission but encouragement to do the same. I think what I end up doing is being a role model for vulnerability.

People have commented that doing so also alleviates some of their own shame and embarrassment about the things I share that we have in common.

How do you introduce yourself to your students?: I say that my mission is to make the unconscious conscious, in myself and others.

I also am a firm believer in a gentle approach, that our psyches, or some might say our souls, are like anemones. If we poke them too hard they close up. I don't want that to happen in my classes. My idea is for people to open as they're ready, on their own terms, at their own pace.

Do you select a theme for each class?: Over the years I have held classes on mother-daughter relationships, family dynamics, love and romance, masculinity, femininity, the Battle of the Sexes, the Shadow — that is, aspects of ourselves that we hide or repress — and awakenings, among many more.

We can all find ourselves in the range of films that I show. Through the film we can understand the emotions and underlying psychology involved, and see the characters' arcs of transformation. Or inversely, if the movie is a cautionary tale, we see what trajectory the characters will remain on if they don't change. Either way is instructive. We get ideas of how we might change or what might it might look like if we don't.

What activities do you engaged in during your time off?: Swimming, tango, Scrabble, yoga, and, of course, watching movies.

What's still on your to-do list?: What's next? More of the same, offering more classes to more people.

How can we learn more about you?: I have a website,, a blog at and a Facebook page, as well as a LinkedIn profile at

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