A Talk with Danette Wolpert of The Illuminate Film Festival: Sedona, Arizona

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When you consider its aims and themes, you could not find a more perfect setting for the four-day Illuminate Film Festival than where it is; nestled among the inspiring and picturesque red rocks of Sedona, Arizona.

Hot on the heels of the Sedona Film Festival, Illuminate emerged for the first time last year, 2014, and is about to begin it’s second year on Thursday May 28 until Sunday May 31, with a special opening ceremony on Wednesday, May 27.   The festival was founded by its Executive Director, Danette Wolpert who recently sat down to explain what Iluminate is all about.

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How does the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona differ from the regular Sedona Film Festival?

The Illuminate Film Festival is primarily focused on launching Conscious Cinema.  What we mean by Conscious Cinema is that films have the capacity to increase our own self-awareness and awareness in the world.  Our films hold human beings as sacred rather than expendable.  They encourage our audiences to ponder their existence more deeply than their daily routines.

As both Founder and Executive Director, what was your initial inspiration to organize such a festival?

Well, my background was initially in Engineering and I felt the urge to move into a career that was more deeply aligned with my own personal calling, and that was to truly help create a better world.  And so, after many years in the film festival business I realized that there was room to create positivity in media.  In alignment with my move to Sedona it became obvious that this was in demand in the world, that the conscious media movement was exploding and that there was room and space for a film festival to emerge to promote that movement.

Are there others of its kind in the country?

Illuminate is really one of a kind in the sense that we focus on conscious media but we also incorporate both an exhibition component and a film industry component.  In other words, not only do we bring the cinema to the community when they would otherwise not have access to these films but we’re also bringing the film industry to the event so that filmmakers and distributors and film financiers and film marketing companies can all connect in order to facilitate growth of this genre all over the world.  So, in that sense, Illuminate is unique.

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Were the logistics behind arranging such a sprawling event more challenging than you expected?

I’ve been working in the film festival world for close to a decade and I have seen what it takes to pull off a festival of any kind.  But, yes, it was of course more challenging to manifest a very smooth operation given that our team is primarily a volunteer team and nobody, other than me, had run a film festival before.  However, in our first installment last year, to my surprise, it was actually smoother than any other film festival that I had worked on.

Were expectations exceeded?

Without question, expectations were exceeded.  You know, I’d come to expect that film festivals in their first year draw, say, three hundred people, and, of course, there are snafus throughout the event and, you know, that there is a positive reception, but there are times when there is a lukewarm reception, but we were very pleasantly surprised to not only have feedback from all of our attendees that it really was an extraordinary event that was both logistically and experientially beneficial, but our numbers were far beyond our expectations.  We drew an audience from twenty-three states and eight international cities. Half of our audience was from the local area and half were from outside.  The qualitative feedback that came back was really heartwarming.   All of the film industry panelists and executives that came last year were anxious to come back again.

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After 2014, was it obvious you would go for another in 2015, or did that decision have to wait? 

It was obvious.  Really.  It was really obvious that we were on to something and that we had a big vision to create change in the world, starting here.

If a festival-goer wanted to see the maximum amount of films, how many could the ticket buyer view during the four days?

We have a total of twenty-two films.  We consider over four to five hundred films. I would say that if someone saw back to back films and participated in events, which are in the evening, I would say they could attend fifteen or sixteen.

Walk us through what we can expect on May 28th, opening night.

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May 27th is actually our launch party and outdoor screening and May 28th is our official opening.  The launch party and outdoor movie screening is free to the public and it features a number of performances and music and food and vendors, and people bringing their lawn chairs and blankets to sit out on the lawn in the courtyard of the Tequa Festival Marketplace which is in the village of Oak Creek, just fifteen minutes south of central Sedona.  That is getting ready for a launch party movie which is called Landfill Harmonic.  That is an extraordinary film that will be premiering for the first time in Arizona.  It’s about a group of kids who live on a landfill in Paraguay who made instruments out of garbage and made their way on to the world stage and toured the world with their recycled orchestra.  Their story was so inspiring so we’ve all been waiting with bated breath for that film to come out.  It had its premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW festival) and we’re the first in Arizona to have it.

And the official opening on May 28th?

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Well, I’d say, you cannot miss our opening night.  It’s a film called Sold.  We have not only an extraordinary film but an extraordinary program to compliment it with the Oscar-winning director Jeffrey Brown and actress Gillian Anderson who you all may know as Agent Scully from The X Files, as well as the impact producer and the director of a non-profit called iRest, which is a non-profit that is implementing programs in Nepal for victims of human trafficking.  That opening night is both a screening and a Kirtan concert that will benefit iRest.

You have a number of Q&A sessions with several of the other films, also.

Yes, we have guests with almost every screening.  Additionally, we also offer something called the Reel Healing Series in which we offer an immersive experience after some of the films.  For example, a film called A Place to Stand is about a convict who has his transformation while in prison through poetry, so we have a creative writing and journal workshop after that film.  We have a world premiere of a film called On Meditation and we’re doing a group meditation in the theatre after the film.  We have the world premiere of a film called Plantpure Nation and after the film we’ll actually have a taste-testing of all of the foods that they (the filmmakers) are promoting.

Plus, for the socially minded I see you have something called the Sedona Experience on May 29th and Spotlight Soiree on Saturday evening, May 30th.  First, what is the Sedona Experience?

The Sedona Experience is a gathering of all of our guests, filmmakers, sponsors, and VIP all-access holders so that we can connect in honor of our Sedona surroundings that will feature a medicine-wheel ceremony and the walking of a labyrinth which are special traditions here in Sedona.

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And the Spotlight Soiree?

The Spotlight Soiree is a party with music by our local musician, Porangiu and a live Video Jockey and food on Brazilian rhythms, and that will follow Paulo Coelho’s Best Story which all about Paulo Coehlho’s past in becoming an author and writing the famous spiritual classic The Alchemist.

You also have something called the Healing Village.  Exactly what is the Healing Village and what is its purpose? 

First of all, the Healing Village is an area at the festival where people can browse a number of conscious vendors and also engage in sessions with a multitude of mind/body practitioners, so everything from hands-on healing work to astrology, to aura photography.  Audiences will have the chance to engage in these self-empowering sessions before or after their movies.  And that often helps people integrate what they’re learning and what they’re experiencing in the movies.

And the closing night film, The Power of the Heart. Tell me a little about the film and the special guest that follows?

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The Power of the Heart is a life-changing film, really, that is about the astonishing intelligence of your heart.  It features a number of visionaries and activists such as Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Maya Angelou, Marianne Williamson.  What is so special about our screening is that for the first time ever, one of the film’s subjects, Immaculee Ilibagiza will be joining us for an on-stage conversation after the screening.  Her story is one that will give you goose bumps.  As a Rwandan genocide survivor she spent what was supposed to be three days in a three foot by four foot bathroom hiding from those who wanted to kill her, and she ended up in there for three months.  She was hiding in there with ten other women.  For me it ranks as partly an Anne Frank story and partly a Nelson Mandela story because she then had the opportunity of facing her potential murderer after the war who also murdered her parents and her brother.  She had to tap into that special place in her heart to find forgiveness.

And finally, how much of a break will you have before you start working on 2016?

(laughs) The break will not be long enough.  (laughs again)  We will spend a few months tying up this festival, sending out our thank you messages, and we’ll take a couple of summer months off then start again at the beginning of September screening films for next year.

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 For more information regarding dates, tickets and the scheduling of the films, CLICK HERE for the official Illuminate Film Festival website.

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