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The Spiritual Screen

Sun Valley puts on its second annual spiritual film festival

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To the rest of Idaho, Sun Valley may be known only for its skiing and spendy cost of living. But as it turns out, the Wood River Valley area is also known for its spiritual living, and to demonstrate that, the town has its own spiritual film festival. The Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, happening September 8 through 11, is a four-day celebration of human spirituality through film that explores spiritual traditions from around the world.

Now in its second year, the festival sets forth the goals of encouraging the production of new films and documentaries, promoting discussion among recognized leaders in the fields of arts and spirituality, offering the public an opportunity to engage with filmmakers and spiritual leaders and enhancing the public awareness of diverse spiritual traditions from around the world.

Last year, the event began when Mary Gervase, the assistant superintendent of the Blaine County School District, contacted her friend of 12 years, Claudio Ruben. "Mary called in March 2005 and said the Dalai Lama was coming to Sun Valley and asked if I wanted to do a festival here," Ruben says over the phone from his home in New Mexico. "Little did we know we'd start a whole film festival. The door opened and we said, 'Let's do it here'"

The way Ruben, a Tibetan Buddhist, sees it, organizing the fest is an opportunity to combine his personal interests in spirituality, business, and art and film, while he says that for Gervase, the SVSFF is a way for to bridge her interests in spirituality and education.

Last year thousands of people were in Sun Valley for both the Dalai Lama visit and the film fest, which included 15 films that primarily focused on Buddhism and complemented the Dalai Lama's message of compassion. "Everybody liked it and said, 'We want more'" says Ruben. "So we said we'll try to do more."

And this year, they are doing more. Next weekend's festival features 33 films, and unlike last year, the festival's board of directors decided to explore spiritual traditions around the world by opening up to a broader tapestry of films that includes faiths other than Buddhism.

One film about which the organizers are particularly excited is the English and Italian film, The Big Question, filmed on the set of Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ. In it, the filmmakers discuss with the cast and crew of Passions various concepts of spirituality independent of the Christ story. The actors, dressed as their characters, speak as themselves and give their own personal views on spirituality, which Ruben says are relatable and touching. "It has nothing to do with Mel Gibson's movie; it is beautifully made, beautifully filmed," says Ruben. "They crafted everything in the movie like the old Italian [painters] did with the light coming in."

Ruben is also looking forward to a showing of Binta Y La Gran Idea, which is part of the new family program at this year's festival. Binta is funded in part by the United Nations organization UNICEF. It takes place in Senegal and tells the story of an African man's quest to improve the state of the world as told through the voice of his young daughter.

Another film that's part of the family program is Peace Tree. It's the story of two girls, a Muslim and a Christian, who want to celebrate each other's religious festivals, Eid and Christmas. Their parents, however, are not keen to the idea, so the girls create a Peace Tree to teach the parental units about being open to the beauty of diversity in unity.

Interestingly, the message of Peace Tree is the underlying idea of the festival: to show the broad, diverse ways of thinking and living in the world. "Through learning, maybe we can understand more about others, create understanding and acceptance and appreciation of other traditions," says Ruben. "And taking something away to put into practice in your life, into your community."

And in the same way that people practice different traditions and religions, the festival organizers realize that people also learn by different methods, so to really teach these spiritual messages, the organizers have more going on than just movies. There will be a free performance of sacred music from around the world at the Sun Valley Opera House. The concert will piggyback on the showing of the movie Sound of the Soul about the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco.

Ruben says several experts, including two worldwide spiritual scholars, will be leading interfaith discussions on relevant issues. Dr. Matthew Fox, author of 28 books, will talk about filmmakers and spirituality. And Dr. Nathan Katz, an expert in "secular spirituality," will talk about Jewish and Buddhist studies.

The festival also includes another kind of learning event, a panel discussion called "Spirituality and America." All the attending scholars and filmmakers will come together and talk with the audience. "Everyone can share their ideas, and hopefully make that a deep, rich environment," says Ruben.

In fact, the whole weekend should provide a rich environment--and not simply because it is chic Sun Valley--but because many people with vastly different backgrounds are working to make this event happen. Here's hoping that the end result will broaden awareness and bring a little more worldly understanding to central Idaho.

The Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, September 8-11, www.svspiritualfilmfestival.org.