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Be Well

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photograph courtesy Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival/Matthieu Ricard

Festivals for the Soul

Not your typical county fairs

Ample sunshine, a mellow mood and like-minded wanderers make the Valley an ideal venue for festivals that question our condition. Fall and spring slack, or the seasons between the seasons, are a prime time to gather and ponder. When winter’s snows give way to spring’s green shoots, or as fall’s aspen leaves begin to quake, these festivals ask the big questions and hope to find a few answers along the way.


Another Kind of Lift Ticket
Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival

At the end of each Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival in September, the board of directors has a wrap-up meeting. They talk about films, naturally, but also the vision for their festival, plans for the future and even the festival’s name.
“Every year, we’ve discussed whether we need to change the name,” said Executive Director Mary Gervase. Specifically, they assess the word “spiritual.”

Spirituality—an inherently and historically private concept—is an open and frank topic these days. In yoga classes, on tea bag inscriptions and in advertising for everything from sedans to soaps, it’s inescapable. Right under Catholic and Jewish, popular Internet dating sites like offer a new option—“spiritual, but not religious.”

Vague enough to kick start an Internet-date conversation, no doubt, but what does it mean?

“We know that people have different definitions of spiritual, and our goal as a board is to continue to use the word and to educate people on the broadest definition,” Gervase said. “We define it as a search for meaning—a personal search that takes many different shapes, sizes and flavors. It may just be asking ourselves, ‘Why are we here? How can we make a difference?’”

Gervase’s is the only film festival in the nation—of over 3,000 held annually—dedicated to spirituality. Last year, she personally watched 350 films submitted for consideration.

“I am just astounded by how much film is being made out there. It’s a shame we can only choose 20 to 25…but that’s about as many as we can cram into three days,” Gervase said.

The 2009 festival lineup included serious documentaries like “Dhamma Brothers,” which chronicles the attempt to bring meditation practices into a maximum security prison in Alabama, and also funny shorts like “Cowboy Yoga,” an unlikely instructional video.

The Audience Choice Award winner for 2009 was “The Horse Boy: A father’s quest to heal his son.” The film follows a Texas family’s journey through Outer Mongolia to treat their two-year-old autistic son with shamanic healing.

“Some have coined this new genre of film ‘transformational entertainment,’” Gervase said. “We call it compelling, entertaining, thought-provoking storytelling through film.” -SVM


A Mindful Slack
Sun Valley Wellness Festival

In the late 1990s, the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors’ Bureau was looking for a new festival to bring people to town during spring’s slack season. The Chamber sent out a survey, and out of the hodgepodge of replies, a consensus emerged: Ketchum was into wellness.

“People were seeking alternatives from the strictly medical path,” said Carol Waller, the chamber’s executive director. The festival would capitalize on the Valley’s growing community of wellness practitioners, from yoga teachers to nutritionists and traditional healers. The Chamber looked at similar festivals in Los Angeles and Seattle to model their high-altitude answer.

Today, the Sun Valley Wellness Festival is a spring mainstay, drawing upwards of 2,000 people and a few dozen speakers and presenters over three days in late May at the Sun Valley resort. Keynote speakers have discussed some of the most vital and elusive elements of the human condition. They have included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Robert Thurman, Ram Daas and Mariel Hemingway. This coming spring, Valley resident Jamie Lee Curtis will give the annual address.

“The turning point was when we got Deepak Chopra,” said Cheryl Welch Thomas, a founding festival sponsor, board vice-president and owner of Chapter One Bookstore. “It just brightens the springtime now. When we come off of winter and everything seems kind of dull, the Wellness Festival just lights up the Valley,” she said.

Besides the lectures, attendees can see demonstrations of healing techniques like massage, acupressure, reflexology and a movement studio run by Cathy Cassia of the Hailey Yoga Center.

“People can go and try out different kinds of yoga,” Waller said. “Or if they say, ‘I don’t know what this qi gong thing is and I want to find out,’ they can do that.”-SVM


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