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The 2016 Illuminate Film Festival – Sedona: Special Report, Part 1 of 2

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Even if you’re both an Arizona resident and a follower of film, there’s still a good chance you may never have heard of the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona, and with good reason.  Listed in the Huffington Post’s prominent Top 24 Film Festivals to Revitalize Your Soul in 2016, this year marks only the third year that the festival has been in existence, yet its influence in conscious cinema is already quite remarkable.

Festival-1But exactly what is conscious cinema?  During last year’s festival I had the opportunity of talking to Illuminate’s founder and Executive Director Danette Wolpert who explained, “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 routine.”

This year, the festival, which runs from June 1-5, will feature five world premieres, two sneak peaks and newly added focuses on family film, episodic television and web content, plus a line-up of films under the theme Social Issues, Conscious Solutions.

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Illuminate begins June 1 with a pre-festival Launch Party and free outdoor screening of the work-in-progress documentary Be More, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix.  The opening film is June 2.  Maya Angelou And Still I Rise is a portrayal of the author, poet, civil rights activist, Grammy-winner and legend, Maya Angelou, featuring interviews with James Earl Jones, Alice Walker, Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.  Filmmaker Rita Cobourn Whack will in attendance.

Illuminate 2 Is the Illumninate Film Festival unique?  “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,” stated Danette.  “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 making companies can all connect in order to facilitate growth of this genre all over the world.  So, in that sense, Illuminate is unique.”

In this first of two special reports from Sedona we take a sneak peak at two of the films you can enjoy at the festival.  Both are documentaries and both are perfect illustrations of Illuminate’s theme of conscious cinema and the positivity that knowledge of these two very different subjects can bring to the viewer.


Service posterThank You For Your Service is a fascinating, 90 minute account of war trauma and failed policies revolving around the stories of four Iraq War veterans.  Directed by Tom Donahue, who will attend the festival for a Q&A following the screening, this riveting and highly affecting documentary tells the stories of men and women returning from active duty while trying to cope with issues such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.  The film explains that by 2012 more U.S. troops died by suicide than were killed in combat.  As one marine states as he tries to put things in perspective, “It’s exhausting feeling you’re under attack all the time.”

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The film highlights the difficulties of the military attempting to re-enter civilian life and the seemingly insurmountable odds it’s faced with when carrying the guilt of past actions.  For example, Marine Kenny Toone talks of how events overseas violated his personal religious beliefs as he tries to come to terms with what he has done while in combat. Kenny returned with ‘Moral Injury.’  Marine Phil Straub was caught in a ferocious ambush and witnessed the chaos that ensued as he watched friends burn to death.  Three months later Phil returned home, always anxious, never sleeping, constantly on the move, plus he developed an inability to engage with friends.  Phil was diagnosed with ‘Survivor’s Guilt.’

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That sense of helplessness remains not only with the infantry but also with the Veteran’s Administration. “How do you help someone who comes to your office and says I’ve killed?” asks one doctor.  The V.A. reports that there are 22 suicides a day.  The actual number is probably higher.

But true to the theme of the Illuminate festival, just at the moment when you might feel that all is lost, there develops hope in the shape of unconventional therapy.  Alternative modalities or the physical treatment of a disorder in private community based programs is illustrated in Native American rituals giving both hope and even a sense of jubilation to the men and women of the military.

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Despite its sobering content, Donahue’s documentary is no dry account.  The film delivers a surprising emotional impression using still pictures, sounds and even a blank screen to highlight the emotional impact of stories told.  It’s very effective.  Plus the film is unrelenting with some staggering statistics.  Perhaps the most staggering of all is the one that concludes the documentary: While you have watched this film, a veteran has committed suicide.

 CLICK HERE for details of times, dates and screenings for Thank You For Your Service.


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Vegan: Everyday Stories is just as the title suggests – a 93 minute documentary telling everyday stories of those who, for one reason or another, have decided to become vegan; a strict vegetarian who not only shuns the world of animal food and dairy products but abstains from using animal products for clothing or any other purpose.

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Meet Renee King-Sonnen whose ambition was always to be a country singer.  Renee runs an animal sanctuary in the middle of Texas.  “Before I went Vegan, I liked chick-filet sandwiches,” Renee explained, but it was after nursing a chicken back to health that everything turned around.  Then there’s eight-year old spitfire, Genesis Butler who one day questioned the food she was eating.  Genesis wondered where the meat came from before it got to the supermarket.  Once she discovered that animals were born into suffering simply to be killed, then eaten, everything changed.  “I never want to eat this again,” she declared, pushing her final chicken nugget aside.

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Told with affection for the animals and even some occasional humor for the situation in which these everyday people have suddenly found themselves, Vegan: Everyday Stories is an entertaining look at the vegan world and the need to protect the world’s animals.

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With additional stories and commentary from celebrities such as musician Moby, entrepreneur Russell Simmons and actor Ed Begley Jr, in truth, it’s difficult to tell whether the documentary will change minds – in this case it’s one thing to witness testimony, it’s another to experience it for yourself – but at least it brings awareness to a subject many may have never considered.  As one lady turned vegan tells the camera, she once witnessed the extraordinary sight of a lamb being born only to be cooking it for the dinner table some time later.  She cried for days.

Look for a Q&A with director Glenn Scott Lacey along with cast members Renee King-Sonnen and Genesis Butler after the screening.

 CLICK HERE for details of times, dates and screenings for Vegan: Everyday Stories


 To find out more, CLICK HERE for the 2016 Illuminate Film Festival website and HERE for the festival’s interactive schedule

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