The Humanist Interview with Andrea Steele Founder and Executive Director of the Freethought Film Festival Foundation

The first annual International Freethought Film Festival was held Friday, May 13, through Sunday, May 15, 2011, at the historic Tampa Theatre in sunny Tampa, Florida. The event was the brainchild of writer Andrea Steele, whose activism began with the 2001 self-publication of her book, Your Preacher May Not Want You to Read This. In 2002 she founded Families in Reason, which received recognition from the Council for Secular Humanism and resulted in her employment as coordinator for the Secular Family Network. She later helped establish the Center for Inquiry-Florida (now CFI-Tampa) and independently began planning the first-of-its-kind film festival. In 2009 she incorporated the Freethought Film Festival Foundation (FFFF), successfully establishing it as a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization.

Steele admits that some of her first attempts at promoting the festival fell short. In the beginning she was appealing to skeptic groups and others in the freethought community to make and submit films. She soon realized this was backwards; she needed to be appealing to filmmakers who were already working on material with appropriate themes. Steele eventually found a clearinghouse that helps match filmmakers to film festivals. She screened all the entries herself and then passed them on to a selection committee that picked which films were right for the festival. In total, thirty filmmakers were represented at the first annual Freethought Film Festival, offering comedy, drama, and animation with seven feature-length films and nearly forty shorts.

The Humanist: What inspired you to organize this film festival?

Andrea Steele: Around the same time I became an activist in the secular movement, I became a frequent patron of the Tampa Theatre, which mostly screens independent films. Every time I would go to the movies, I wondered why there wasn’t a film festival with a freethought theme since there seems to be every kind of niche film festival one can imagine. I knew it was a great idea, but it took me eight years to actually move forward with it. Granted, over those eight years I wrote up business plans and event plans, and observed other film festivals that I attended. But life happens, and it just never seemed to be the right time to actually do it. But then the secular movement started to gain media attention, and when Bill Maher’s Religulous was released, there was no possible way I could hold off any longer. While the economic climate wasn’t optimal for beginning such an endeavor, I felt we were so close to a cultural shift to change the stereotypes of nonbelievers and to elevate science and inquiry in lieu of superstition and pseudoscience, that this alone trumped the economic and personal challenges for me.

The Humanist: What were the criteria of the entries? What type of film belongs in a freethought film festival?

Steele: The films had to reflect our mission statement to promote reason, critical thinking, and freedom of inquiry. And they couldn’t be under a distribution contract, because we want the films to be new—films you couldn’t rent from Netflix. We called for student submissions, as well as entries from seasoned filmmakers who wanted their films exposed to the public as much as possible. Short and full-length features, animations, experimental, documentary, and live-action films were the categories. As long as the content reflected one or more aspect of our mission statement, we wanted to see it.

The Humanist: I’ve compiled my own list of ten films I think strongly express humanist ideals. I focused on well-known Hollywood films that have been out for years, and even then I found it a challenge to find a lot of movies with a solid humanist message. Did you have that problem, or does the wider freethought umbrella offer more material?

Steele: I think the approach of trying to find a “solid” humanist message is missing the point of what film is about. Stories are being told, and symbolism is always intertwined in the story. Solid messages are found in documentaries. You have to delve into other genres of film with the expectation of interpreting the symbolism and attempt to empathize with characters and scenarios. For me, dissecting the symbolism is far more appealing than a film that spews data at me.

But the primary reason that the event is called the International Freethought Film Festival is because of the umbrella factor you mention. There are so many different facets of freethought that it broadens the potential of presenting a variety of perspectives. I don’t see a competition of ideas here, but an opportunity to dilute negative stereotypes of freethinkers overall, in a way that is accessible to the general public.

The Humanist: Do you find a larger percentage of freethinkers among independent filmmakers?

Steele: I can only speculate, but given that filmmakers are artists, and artists tend to lean toward liberal thinking, I would guess that the percentage of filmmakers who are freethinkers would be significantly higher than in the general population. Not likely as high a percentage as scientists who are freethinkers, but up there. The notion of being an “independent” filmmaker, free of the influence of a large studio, is probably also a clue about one’s mindset.

The Humanist: Can you talk about some of the films you’ll be showing and why?

Steele: The documentary Nature of Existence (directed by Roger Nygard) was selected because the film asks ultimate questions of people who come from many different philosophies and religious backgrounds. It gives the viewer a glimpse into ideas different than their own. It’s a film for those who are fascinated by diversity of thought, and it will no doubt promote dialogue. The Evangelist is a full-length student film by Nate Chapman that we selected early. It’s a dark comedy about an adolescent evangelical Christian who goes overboard in his quest to save the world, and the inner conflict of his gay adoptive father, who believes that nobody should ever hide who he or she is. He supports his son in whatever way that he can, with the hope that he’ll grow out of his religiosity. This film was chosen because of the personal dynamics that play out. It’s an often absurd look at how family life can be a struggle when members don’t see eye-to-eye on religion. The God Complex (directed by Mark Pirro) was selected for its all-out spoof of Bible stories. This one is for the freethinkers who appreciate gratuitous blasphemy.

The Humanist: How was the festival generally received?  Did you experience any resistance or were people mainly curious?

Steele: I have had nothing but positive feedback. No resistance at all. Tampa embraces diversity. It has a strong gay community and it has the Tampa Theatre, which regularly shows progressive and avant-garde films. The people at the theatre have been really awesome to us. It’s a little funny because it’s run by the city—I’m not entirely sure they knew what was going on there.

The Humanist: Is it true that you received a death threat because of the festival?

Steele: I received a death threat from an individual whose hobby it is to threaten leaders in the secular movement. I guess if he thinks I’m worthy of a death threat, than I’m doing something right in my efforts.

The Humanist: Is your group associated with CFI-Tampa? Who sponsored the film festival?

Steele: FFFF is a completely independent 501(c )(3) nonprofit, educational organization. We are not an affiliate of any organization. The American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry-Transnational were major advertising sponsors for the festival and Cigar City Brewing, a local business in Tampa, helped sponsor our Superstitions Unplugged opening night after party. The local NPR station, 88.5 WMNF, was our media sponsor.

The Humanist: Will there be another International Freethought Film Festival?

Steele: The IFFF is an annual event, so indeed, there will be another. We’re looking at the same time next year. Check for future details.