Director Josh Aronson knew his latest documentary, “To Be of Service,” might not appeal to everyone. In his heart, he felt it needed to be done.
The award-winning director’s 88-minute independent film, which will be featured in this year’s Sedona International Film Festival, chronicles the complex stories of war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the healing powers of their service dogs.
“To Be of Service” explores how America neglects a deep obligation to assimilate soldiers back into civilian society, Aronson explains, while challenging political leaders to think of solutions outside of war.
“It’s not designed for a wide audience or mainstream audiences of people going to movies looking for entertainment,” he says. “It’s not a nice, feel-good date movie. It will take you to places you’ve likely never been before.”
After years of substance abuse, suicide attempts, talk therapy and prescription medications, Aronson shows how 11 Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans gain back their independence and emotion through four-legged companionships with highly trained service dogs.
The director, known for his Oscar-nominated documentary “Sound of Fury,” says he hopes his new piece will inspire viewers to support legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund service dogs as treatment for PTSD.
The only avenues for elder vets to secure their lifelong pets are through “extraordinary personal effort” and scholarship programs.
“These dogs are trained and have specific commands,” Aronson says. “But the most important part of the healing is the 24-7, one-on-one relationship that begins to feel like unconditional love—from dog to the vet, and the vet to the dog.”
“No matter the shame or guilt, the dog is there and loves you,” he continues.
“To Be of Service” is just one of more than 160 independent films to be showcased at the 26th annual Sedona International Film Festival, which runs from Saturday, February 22, to Sunday, March 1.
Coming off a record-breaking year, SIFF will launch its next quarter century with nine days of compelling films, workshops, events and special guests.
But it’s films like Aronson’s, says SIFF Executive Director Patrick Schweiss, that make the crowd-drawing event so exceptional.
“It’s this really wonderful gathering of the film industry. People get to see films they wouldn’t normally get to see,” he says.
“They’re either brand-new indie films that haven’t made it to the theater yet or films that might not ever.”
Cinephiles will have the chance to delve into an array of features, shorts, documentaries, animation, foreign and student films carefully selected from a pool of 1,400.
Through the work of a 30-member screening committee comprised of “all walks of life,” the festival assures quality cinematography, acting, screenplay and, most importantly, storytelling.
“When we watch, we ask, ‘Are you inspired or entertained? Are you angered, or are you moved in some way? Is it emotional?’” Schweiss explains. “We seek to bring awareness, understanding and culture through film, and to unify people and open dialogue.”
Among the films selected for screening this year are three documentaries nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature: “For Sama,” “The Cave” and “Honeyland,” as well as the Oscar-shortlisted Best International Film contenders “Those Who Remained” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
On opening day, the festival will celebrate Black History Month with a tribute to actress and singer Leslie Uggams at the Sedona Performing Arts Center.
The nod will include clips from the iconic TV series “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, in which Uggams earned Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations for her performance as Kizzy.
Former “Roots” co-star Kim Fields, also known for her nine-year stint as “Tootie” on the NBC sitcom “The Facts of Life,” will join as a special guest.
“We’re honoring Alex Haley’s life and the impact it had on America, on society and on understanding the plight of the African American person and family,” Schweiss says.
Actress and singer Lainie Kazan will return to the festival that same day to introduce the 2019 film “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog,” written and directed by Lynn Roth.
Based on Asher Kravitz’s award-winning Israeli novel “The Jewish Dog,” the film tells the story of Kaleb, a beloved German Shepherd who gets separated from his family during the Nuremberg Laws in WWII Berlin.
On February 28, festivalgoers can scope out a special presentation by Bella Gaia, a NASA-powered immersive experience.
The live concert, which mixes music, dance and interstellar imagery, was inspired by astronauts who spoke of the life-changing power of seeing Earth from space, Schweiss says.
Emmy-winning and Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated actor, director and producer Rob Reiner—responsible for smash hits like “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Stand By Me”—will receive the festival’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award on February 29.
Dubbed as having one of the longest and most golden runs in film-directing history, Reiner is being recognized for his work both in front of and behind the camera, says Schweiss, and for his commitment to the art of indie filmmaking.
“It’s really for someone who has had significant contributions to world and art of independent filmmaking,” he says. “Rob is a well-known actor but has become very accomplished behind the camera, directing some of the biggest films in the last two generations.”
A special screening of Reiner’s Oscar-nominated film “The American President,” a romantic comedy about a widowed U.S. president running for re-election falling in love with an environmental lobbyist, will also be play in his honor.
For those interested in learning more about the ins and the outs of the industry, “Game of Thrones” writer Bryan Cogman will headline the week of workshops and roundtables.
A final listing of all the films and showtimes will be announced at the end of the month.
All-access and priority passes are available through the organization’s website at sedonafilmfestival.org.
Platinum All-Access Priority Passes include access to all festival activities, films, events and parties as well as priority seating.
The price for SIFF members is $1,193 and $1,325 for nonmembers.
Holders will be able to select films beginning at 9 a.m. February 3, while 10- and 20-ticket pass holders can select films beginning February 10.
Individual tickets, $15, go on sale to the general public on February 17.
Sedona International Film Festival
Harkins Sedona 6 Theatre, 2081 W. State Route 89A, Mary D. Fisher Theatre, 2030 W. Highway 89A, Sedona Performing Arts Center, 995 Upper Red Rock Loop Road, various times Saturday, February 22, to Sunday, March 1, individual tickets, $15, go on sale to the general public on February 17; packages available, sedonafilmfestival.com.