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Film Fest Tucson Celebrates Tucson's Film Legacy and Works Unseen in Arizona

by Eric Swedlund

With a programming nod to Tucson’s rich movie history, a new film festival comes to Downtown Tucson October 20 to 23. At the helm of Film Fest Tucson is Festival Director Herb Stratford, a film critic perhaps best known locally for spearheading the restoration of the historic Fox Theatre. Film Fest Tucson will screen short and feature-length narrative and documentary films, selected, Stratford says, for their quality, timeliness and subject matter. All screenings will take place at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, 160 S. Scott Ave., an iconic Tucson building built in 1916.

For some of the centerpiece films, Stratford selected several that were shot in Tucson, stretching back nearly a century.

“Because of our film legacy here in Tucson, with films being made here back to the 1920s, I wanted to shine a light on that a bit,” he says. “These old films sold the southwest to the rest of the country and drummed up interest in the southwest as a place to live.” Following last year’s successful 40th anniversary screening of Martin Scorsese’s classic Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore at The Loft Cinema, Stratford says he wanted to showcase another locally filmed movie. Film Fest Tucson will feature the 30th anniversary screening of Desert Bloom, a coming-of-age drama starring Jon Voight, JoBeth Williams, Ellen Barkin and Annabeth Gish.

Besides Desert Bloom, the festival will screen two silent films made in Tucson in the 1920s, each with live musical accompaniment. In a partnership with the Tucson Historic Preserve Foundation, Film Fest Tucson will screen 1924’s The Mine with the Iron Door, accompanied by a quintet from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and 1925’s Ridin’ Wild, accompanied by jazz pianist Jeff Haskell. “That’s something you don’t get at most film festivals, so it’s a really unique experience,” Stratford says.

Beyond those centerpiece films, about 95 percent of the festival’s 32 films will be Arizona premieres, unseen and little-seen gems that Stratford wants to bring to a larger audience.

“I know there are a lot of great films out there potentially going without an audience, so I decided I would bite the bullet and jump in and create a fall destination film festival, both aimed at locals and trying to draw visitors to town,” he says. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Stratford sees between 300 and 800 films a year and after restoring and running the Fox Theatre, he programmed the Napa Valley Film Festival for two years. Last year he used that experience to co-produce the Tucson Festival of Films and saw even more interest among local film fans.

“One thing I realized is there’s a niche for another film festival here in town,” he says. “For me it always goes back to story, so the films have to be compelling from that standpoint. I want things people maybe haven’t heard about before.”

Selecting the Scottish Rite Cathedral, Film Fest Tucson can keep the entire festival at one location, with three of the lodge rooms serving as screening theaters, able to seat 120, 150 and 350. “I’d been in the building and it was screaming out to me ‘This is a perfect place to do a film festival,’” he says. “It’s almost like having a multiplex in an historic building. We have the highest technology, but in these amazing environments. Ideally, we’ll continue to expand the festival and include other venues, but I’d like to consider the Scottish Rite our home.”

Additional special guests will be on hand for Q&A sessions, including Allison W. Gryphon, director of What the F@#- Is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It? and Dan Guerrero, producer of Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano. “It’s all a labor of love and I’d like to see it grow into something that’s self-sustaining,” Stratford says. “I’m a film person and I want to continue to make sure these stories are seen and heard. But also the response has been great and the folks who’ve come on board as sponsors and volunteers to help us definitely see the value of this as another cultural event.”

Individual screenings cost $10 and can be purchased online in advance. For more information and a full schedule, visit