Typography

Next week, the Sedona International Film Festival will screen more than 160 feature films and shorts, including the documentary “Enlighten Us,” focusing on New Age guru James Arthur Ray, infamous for causing the death of three people just outside Sedona in 2009.

In October of that year, a fatal mass causality incident occurred at Angel Valley, a retreat center few miles southwest of Sedona. We had photographers and reporters on the scene the night of the incident and the morning after, as law enforcement investigated the deaths of three people and the hospitalization of 21 others.


The victims were all attendees of Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, spending up to $10,000 each to attend. The sweat lodge was poorly misappropriated from a Lakota design, and instead of being constructed with breathable blankets or animal skins, was covered with plastic tarpaulin, which trapped the heat and steam in the structure, turning a spiritual sauna into a fatal oven.

We spent several months covering the court case in Camp Verde that resulted in Ray’s conviction for negligent homicide served concurrently instead of the more serious triple manslaughter conviction county prosecutors sought.

Released from prison in 2013, Ray recently sought to have his civil rights restored and to have the court set aside his guilty verdict. Yavapai County Judge Michael Bluff restored his civil rights in January but declined to have the court wipe away the conviction as it if never happened.

Restoring his right to vote is fine — he served his time in prison. Erasing the conviction, however, is not. Three people are dead solely because of his actions and it is abundantly clear through the documentary Ray has no genuine remorse for the dead but only mourns his own multi-million-dollar career.

In terms of a documentary, “Enlighten Us” serves its purpose brilliantly. Well-shot and informative, it takes little editorial license, instead letting Ray and his cadre speak for themselves as well as interviewing former followers who have since become disenchanted with Ray since the deaths and his conviction for them.

The first half of the film focuses on Ray and his incredulous efforts to rebuild his empire.

The second half shows his rise from New Age preacher to narcissistic guru and the growing recklessness that led inevitably to the deaths of three innocent followers. At each turn, Ray has the opportunity take ownership of his own crime yet always refers the deaths as an “incident” or “accident,” never admitting he was the sole individual whose negligence was fatal for others.

The documentarians are more than willing to let him rationalize away his culpability. He does not appear openly malevolent, just narcissistic, shallow, oblivious and wholly incapable of understanding the damage he has caused the families of his victims.

Even at the end when directly asked about the deaths, he states the incident had to happen so he could learn how to overcome the challenges he faced in prison with the positive thinking he used to impart to his followers. The irony is that he is actively promoting himself on his website as the hero of the film — as a stepping stone toward rebuilding his career — without realizing most viewers will clearly view him as the villain.

“Enlighten Us” screens at 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, and noon on Saturday, Feb. 25 — merely one of the 160 films at this year’s Sedona International Film Festival. Tickets are now on sale and I highly recommend you see what other cinematic gems festival has to offer.

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