Sedona International Film Festival: 30th anniversary edition (February 2024)

The end of February on our calendar is always reserved for the annual Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF).  This would be a particularly luminous one, being the 30th anniversary of the festival.  For us personally, it was momentous in other ways.  The week before was our last work week before transitioning into semi-retirement. For me, this marked the soft end of a 33 year career as a practicing radiologist, all but 3 years with Scripps.  I say soft end, because we were planning to continue on for a while as locums physicians for our former group, working occasional days, the big difference being that the days we would work would now be on our schedule.

Steve’s final weeks in practice took an unexpected turn.  We knew he might someday have to have a repeat atrial fibrillation ablation.  He had a good, but not perfect, result over 3 years before.  His Linq cardiac monitor, implanted in his left chest wall, had a 3-year battery which failed right on schedule, in the fall of 2023. Possibly sensing something was maybe amiss, he upgraded his Apple watch to a model with EKG functionality.

Back at work after a week off for elective sinus surgery, he suddenly became light-headed behind the hospital and woke up to find a circle of concerned faces peering down at him.  Fortunately this occurred mid-day, on the loading dock behind the hospital, when he headed out for a circumambulatory walk around the campus after lunch. Somehow, he didn’t have major head trauma during this incident, which landed him in Urgent Care and led to a battery of tests, including head and cervical spine CT scans.  He was discharged with a Zio external heart monitor and over the next week, underwent a thorough cardiac evaluation.  The conclusion was that he needed a repeat ablation procedure, which was performed on Tuesday on what was scheduled to be his final work week.

Weirdly, although there is never a convenient time for this sort of occurrence, in some ways, the timing couldn’t have been better.  Three weeks before, a new ablation device called Farapulse became FDA approved.  Steve’s electrophysiologist, Doug Gibson, had experience with the device as an investigator in the preceding multi-center trial validating the technology. Steve became the second person in San Diego County to undergo the procedure after FDA approval.  When he called me after the procedure, Doug seemed quite optimistic Steve would fare well.

Three days later, we drove to Sedona as planned on the Friday before the start of the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF).  Unable to get a reservation at Elote despite trying a month in advance, I called in a take out order on the way.  Miraculously, I got through on the first try.  Our San Diego friends and neighbors, John and Joan, who have become regulars at SIFF as well, picked it up for us , enabling us to dine together in peace at home with a delicious array of Elote specialties. This was a welcome antidote to the trying 2 hours since arrival of buzzing around the house, discovering a variety of atrocities committed by the string of monthly renters the house had endured since our last stay in September.

This was our second year as screeners for the narratives for SIFF, which enabled us to schedule ourselves more lightly, as we had already seen a number of the offerings. This was also our second year as Platinum Pass holders, the main advantage over Gold being access to the VIP lounge with lunches catered by local restaurants.  I hoped this would be our first year to be able to stay through the Sunday end of the festival.  We always had to drive home on Sundays in prior years to work on Monday, so always missed the final day.  Last year was the first year we planned to stay through the end, only to have Steve develop flickering in his eyes, leading to us leave earlier than planned to have an ophthalmologic evaluation on Sunday morning by our friend Brad.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Songs of Earth (2023), written and directed and co-produced by Margreth Olin, is a highly personal documentary of a meditative series of walks over a year with the filmmaker’s father.  It was so meditative I found myself occasionally lulled into near sleep but it was beautifully filmed.  The pre-recorded interview with Olin was illuminating and touching.  In the film, her mother says she hopes she precedes her husband in death, as she can’t imagine living without him. In fact, in the interview, we learned she had a massive stroke from which she died two days later, on the evening of the screening of the film in the filmmaker’s hometown.  Unusually, being a  documentary, the film was Norway’s nominee for the Academy Awards Best International Feature film.

Aerial view of a glacier in Norway, the setting for Margreth Olin’s beautifully filmed and meditative documentary film,  Songs of Earth.

Driving Madeleine* (starring Line Renaud and  Dany Boon) is titled Une Belle Course in French. I had loved this 2022 French film during the screening process, but Steve hadn’t seen it (I screened it in Cabo Pulmo, unable to dive thanks to my broken and casted wrist).  Directed by Christian Carion, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, it takes place mostly in a taxi careening through the streets of Paris, on the day Madeleine is moving reluctantly into an assisted living facility.  Along the way, she and the cabby take a trip down her memory lane of a storied life.

Diane Ladd and Mary Stuart Masterson, playing mother and daughter with a fraught relationship, joined writer and director Damian Romay virtually for a Q & A after the evening screening of Isle of Hope, filmed in Savannah.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Marguerite’s Theorem*: We both loved this 2023 French film directed by Anna Novion.  It stars Ella Rumpf as an intense mathematics graduate student whose promising academic career is derailed at a crucial juncture.  She feels betrayed by her advisor, played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin and abruptly drops out of her program.

Several of this year’s SIFF films were set in my favorite city, the City of Light, Paris, including Driving Madeleine, Marguerite’s Theorem and Rose.

Another Body is a 2023 documentary detailing the scary use of technology in which women’s faces are used in deepfake porn sites. It was preceded by My Blonde GF, a similarly themed 2023 short profiling a victim of such a deepfake

Steve took the evening off but I was glad I ventured out to see All Your Faces*, written and directed by Jeanne Herry, portraying a restorative justice circle in France, pairing convicted criminals with victims of similar crimes in groups led by trained professional facilitators.   Jean-Pierre Darroussin played one of the counselors leading the group.

Monday, February 26, 2024

We took the morning off.  I hiked Ant Hill, including the climb up Grand Central, solo, while Steve rowed.

Backyard Sedona hike view, from what we call Picnic Rocks, an unnamed ridge near Jordan.

We saw just one film today, another fabulous French film called Toni*, starring Camille Cottin as the frazzled single mother of five adolescents who contemplates going back to school.

Dinner was unusually early that day, as we joined a cohort of the Sedona Camera Club at the Spoke and Wheel at Los Abrigados.  Our presentation at the camera club was well attended, including our San Diego fan club (John and Joan, Chuck and Kim and Kay) and friends from Sedona (Gary and Laura, Cristina and Jeff).  Steve orchestrated our talk on Wonders of the Underwater World, while I took the helm for Eclipse 2024.

Whales were among the underwater wonders we spoke about at our presentation to the Sedona Camera Club. This sperm whale female adult and baby were highlights of our trip to Dominica in January.

Our second talk was on photography of solar eclipses. This composite of the August 21, 2017 total eclipse was taken at Phelps Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Steve and I hiked in the morning, Jordan to Cibola Ridge, the first hike with some elevation and the first test of whether his arrythmia was really tamed.  It went well.  In fact, despite the fact he also has a sore knee and had back surgery 4 years before, I could hardly keep up with him.

The Price of Truth* is a chilling documentary profiling the work of Dmitry Muratov, founder and editor of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian news source shut down and silenced by the government.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.  Many of his reporters have been killed and others forced to leave Russia. Director Patrick Forbes was present for a lively discussion of the importance of a free press, especially in light of the recent death in prison of Alexei Navalny.

Merchant Ivory was our evening screening at Sedona Performing Arts Center (SPAC) at the high school.  It detailed the highly productive decades-long life and professional partnership of James Ivory with Ismail Merchant, producing such classics as A Room with a View and The Remains of the Day. Director Stephen Soucy accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of 95 year old James Ivory, who appeared via a pre-recorded statement.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

We took this morning off.  Steve rowed at home, since we needed someone home to let in the pest guy.  I headed out on Jordan and up Cibola, mounting the ridge we called Picnic Rocks and circled back down Jordan to home.  Along the way, I listened to Some People Need Killing, a chilling non-fiction book by former Rappler journalist Patricia Evangelista.  She recounts in meticulous detail atrocities, so called extra-judicial killings, orchestrated by former Philippine President Duterte in the name of eradicating drug use.

We filled the afternoon with two excellent films.  The first was a documentary called One With the Whale* (2023).  I’m generally vehemently opposed to the idea of whaling, but there is a world of difference between commercial whaling and subsistence whaling. The film profiled an indigenous family living on St. Lawrence, a tiny island in the Bering Sea which is closer to Russia than the US.  The family, like the rest of their community, continues the traditions of their ancestors, relying on hunting of marine animals, including walrus, seals and whales, for 80% of their food.  Their way of life collides with the modern world of social media when 16 year old Chris becomes the youngest person in his village to spear a whale, which will provide food for the entire village for months.  The celebration by the local community quickly devolves into an online pileup of denunciations by armchair activists.

This was preceded by a complementary short film called School of Fish (2023), which profiled an indigenous community in Alaska which makes its living fishing salmon. Their way of life is threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine and the potential for the pollution of the bay’s pristine waters.

Scrap, written, directed, co-produced and starring Vivian Kerr, who was also present for an after talk, was our second screening of the day, a 2022 narrative feature.  We both found the title a little puzzling, but we enjoyed the story of Beth, who has lost her job and is living in her car.  I thought a better title would be Scrape, as Beth is self-sabotaging and makes a series of bad decisions, despite the availability of help from her brother and her ex.  She seemed to be destined to hit bottom before finally pulling her life together but Kerr explained her choice of title as reflecting Beth’s remaining scraps of dignity and the interactions Beth has with her brother (Anthony Rapp).

In the evening at home, we watched another documentary called Picture of his Life, which depicts famed underwater photographer Amos Nachoum’s quest to capture images of swimming polar bears in frigid Arctic water.

Polar bear, Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle north of Norway. We hope to return to Svalbard again one day, but definitely have no plans to swim with them!

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Nathan-ism (2023) is based on the obsessive drawing and writing by former GI Nathan Hilu, assigned to guard Nazi criminals awaiting their days in court at the Nuremberg Trials. In his 90s, Nathan is interviewed by film maker Elan Golod, who also interviews people in the art world, as well as an archivist, who endeavors to validate Nathan’s memories.

It was preceded by a touching short film called Jack and Sam, depicting the friendship of two men in their 90s, both survivors of the same camp during the Holocaust, who miraculously are reunited 80 years after their imprisonment.

A Little Family Drama (2023) was a lighter offering, depicting a squabbling multi-generational Mexican-American family whose signature restaurant is threatened by foreclosure.  Nadia Zoe directed, as well as co-wrote and co-produced.

Our third film of the day was a powerful and maddening documentary called To Kill a Tiger*, focusing on one family’s navigation of the labyrinthine Indian judicial system after their 13-year old daughter is gang-raped.  Living in a small village, they are urged to “compromise” by marrying off the girl to one of the assailants!  Unusually, the girl’s father holds firm in his decision to seek prosecution of the guilty parties. Nisha Pahuja wrote and directed, as well as co-produced this important film, well deserving of its nomination for a Best Documentary Academy Award.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Frida* (2024), directed by Carla Gutierrez, uses Frida Kahlo’ extensive illustrated diaries and her own words, as well as animated depictions of her artwork, to bring the iconic artist to vivid life.

Frida’s half of the shared house and studio she occupied with Diego Rivera, now a house museum called Museo Casa-Estudio in Mexico City.

Much of the text for Frida was drawn from Kahlo’s extensive and  illustrated diaries, housed at her childhood home, Casa Azul in Mexico City.

Rose* (2022) is a Danish film written and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, based on his sister’s life with schizophrenia.  It was a touching and comic road trip, as a group of Danish tourists take a bus tour to Normandy and Paris.  Among the travelers are two sisters, Ellen (Lene Maria Christensen) and Inger (Sofie Grabol).  Inger lives with schizophrenia and a variety of phobias in a care facility.  Inger’s issues arouse the ire of some of their fellow travelers, particularly a rigid German father (Soren Malling). Oplev zoomed in afterwards for an enlightening after-talk.

Dancing Through the Shadow is based on the life of dancer Tia Zhang, who grew up in Maoist China.  This is a lush portrayal of the tribulations of a Chinese family caught up in the cultural maelstrom of changing Maoist policies.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Shadow of the Day* (2023) is a gripping Italian film set in the 1930s during the rise of fascism.  It stars Riccardo Scamarcio as a wounded WW I veteran and fascist sympathizer who as manager of a restaurant offers a job to a capable young woman, Anna (Benedetta Porcaroli).  The restaurant offers a window into the tensions rising in the country.

The Business of Pleasure (2023) is probably only the second Macedonian film we have ever seen.  It was also an intense tale, set in the seamy underworld of sex trafficking.  Eleni (Slagana Vujosevik) is a determined journalist who lost her best friend to human trafficking.  She takes tremendous personal risks in her drive to uncover the shadowy people driving the trade, enlisting her friend’s father and uncle to set up the perpetrators.

Cindy and Gerry came up from Phoenix for the weekend. It had been a year since we’d seen them last, also during last year’s festival, with them coming up to use some of the ticket pack Tatiana and Miles had to forfeit (last year due to Mile’s needing back surgery and this year due to an untimely cold). We went out to dinner at Rene, our first time since a terrible Thanksgiving offering years back with our friend Susan. We were trying it again since it was now under the helm of Chef Mercer.  The hit of the evening was the mushroom strudel, a dish I would gladly return for.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

We opted for a morning movie instead of the award’s brunch.  We saw a gripping German language feature called Martha Liebermann: A Stolen Life* (2022) and a Director’s Choice for Best Feature Comedy, one of the films we had screened and recommended, Rules of Living. Martha Liebermann was a real person, the widow of a renowned German Impressionist artist, Max Liebermann.  In addition to his own work, he amassed an important collection of paintings by French Impressionist artists, which Martha inherited after her husband’s death in 1935.  The film focuses on Martha’s life during the Nazi era in Berlin, as she considers escaping with her life or staying and trying to maintain control of her husband’s collection and artistic legacy.

We had seen all 4 of the Director’s Choice films, two as narrative screeners and two as excellent documentaries screened during the festival (To Kill a Tiger and The Price of Truth).  Both of the feature selections featured Japanese actors (Tokyo Cowboy and Rules of Living) and we were happy to have a chance to end the festival on a comic note by re-seeing Rules of Living*, which was making its world premiere at SIFF.  We had chatted briefly outside Harkins with writer, director and star Greg Dale.  He portrays an American searching for a place to stay in Tokyo who winds up rooming with a reluctant Mikuko Abe (Kaho Minami). His search, based on his lived experiences, was quite amusing. Producer Jeffrey Rowe was also present for an after-talk.

Two of our personal festival favorites were recognized as Audience Choice award winners, Rose* and Driving Madeleine*.  As usual, there were Best of Fest favorites we missed, namely Into the Spotlight and Robert Shields: My Life as a Robot.

I did a solo hike in the late afternoon, Jordan to Picnic Rocks, down the backside to Tom’s Knoll, across to Brin’s Mesa and back on Jordan.

Late afternoon glow of Sedona’s red rocks from a hike from the house, a sidelong view of Cibola Mitten.

For dinner, we drove to Camp Verde to Manzanita for the German specialities.

By the numbers: Over 9 festival days, 8 days with 4 screenings and one with 3, there were 35 possible film slots.  I saw 30 films total (11 as a screener, 2 of which I saw again during the festival) this year, with Steve just behind me at 29.

All of these films were worth seeing, but our particular favorites are marked with an asterisk (*) and worth seeking out.

If you need more recommendations for great films, look for these gems from past Sedona film festivals: 2023, 2022, 2020, 2019, 2017, 2016 and 2015.

See you at the movies!


The only bad feature of Sedona International Film Festival week is little time to hike! This is from a favorite, West Fork of Oak Creek.


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