Coming Attraction: The Freethought Film Festival

Through much of movie history, films that explore freethinking themes have been few and far between. Many films with religious overtones have enjoyed success, such as the classic Ben-Hur, the more recent The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and countless others, and yet even documentaries that chronicle the history of atheist thought have long been deemed too controversial.

However, in recent years this has happily begun to change. From the successes of The Golden Compass and Bill Maher’s Religulous, it’s obvious there is new demand for movies that are geared towards nontheists. The time is ripe for producing freethought films.

Enter the Freethought Film Festival. A new project planning on making its debut in 2010, the Freethought Film Festival–of which the American Humanist Association is a sponsor–will serve to nurture new demand for films for the non-religious and encourage more movies exploring freethought ideas. The largest and one of the first of its kind, the Freethought Film Festival is envisioned as an annual event and will draw in atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers from all over the country.

The Humanist Network News recently conducted an e-mail interview with Andrea Steele, the founder/executive director of the Freethought Film Festival Foundation, to get the inside scoop on this exciting new project, its goals, and where she sees it going in the next few years.

Humanist Network News: Tell me about the Freethought Film Festival. Where and when is it being held? Who else is involved in the production?

Andrea Steele: The Freethought Film Festival is the primary focus of a newly formed non-profit, charitable, educational organization called the Freethought Film Festival Foundation. The organization was incorporated for the very purpose of hosting an annual Freethought Film Festival in order to promote critical thinking, reason and freedom of inquiry through the medium of film. Tentatively, the event will take place in Tampa, Florida in November 2010.

The Freethought Film Festival Foundation is responsible for the leg-work involved in the production, but we look forward to the involvement of current and potential sponsors in assisting with the final selection of film submissions to be screened at the Freethought Film Festival event. An advisory committee will be formed in the near future as more freethinkers become aware of our efforts and express a desire to volunteer their experience and knowledge.

HNN: What is the goal of the Freethought Film Festival?

Steele: The goal of the Freethought Film Festival is to encourage filmmakers to take on subjects that will capture the interest of freethinkers. An important part of this encouragement is a scholarship award to the filmmakers whose submissions best reflect the purpose of the Freethought Film Festival Foundation. With this in mind, the hope of FFFF is that altruistic freethinkers will see the potential impact that establishing a freethought niche would have on our movement, and make a contribution to a scholarship fund.

HNN: How did you get involved in the freethought movement? Have you always been a freethinker or did you come to the movement more recently?

Steele: I began to get involved in the freethought movement in 2001 when I was working on a personal project. While doing research, I discovered that there was actually a term for the ideals that I held. I learned that there were organizations in existence, which supported a broad range of freethinkers and promoted reason. As I learned more about these organizations, I noticed that there were few informational resources and support for freethinking families.

At the time, my three children were very young, and I recognized the need for freethinking families to connect with others of similar philosophies. I made a decision to form Families in Reason (FIR) in order to fill this need. My efforts were recognized by the Center for Inquiry, and they hired me as the Coordinator for the Secular Family Network. FIR became a pilot program, and each month, a meeting of parents and their children was held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida. Various other social activities were also organized to foster interaction among freethinking families. It was quite unforeseen that my personal project would lead to activism in the freethought movement.

I was not always a freethinker. In my youth, I was extremely involved in a Southern Baptist congregation. I was an evangelical Christian fundamentalist in every sense. In my teens, I stopped attending church as a result of a break-up that intensely affected me emotionally. Gradually, I lost my faith as a result of exposure to ideas other than what I had been taught in the confines of my religion. I am now self-described as an agnostic atheist with secular humanist tendencies.

HNN: How did you get the idea for the film festival?

Steele: Around the same time that I started Families in Reason, I developed a deep appreciation for independent films. This appreciation began after attending an Independent Film Channel Film Festival. When I started working for the Center for Inquiry, I presented the idea for a Freethought Film Festival as a community event to promote the mission of CFI. I received positive responses for the idea, but it never materialized. When my activism waned in order to prioritize the needs of my family, the idea of a Freethought Film Festival never left me. I knew that one day I would make it a reality.

Eventually, the religiosity of the country increased, real science was being ignored by policy makers, and freethinkers became more outspoken. The drive to organize a film festival became even stronger, but the timing was not right for me personally. When Religulous was released, there was no way I could have held off on the idea of a Freethought Film Festival any longer. The climate for a shift toward reason was far too ideal for me to delay.

HNN: What categories of film submissions are you calling for?

Steele: The Freethought Film Festival Foundation will be making calls for film submissions that reflect our mission of promoting critical thinking, reason and freedom of inquiry through the medium of film. We are not going to be screening films that are in distribution. Student filmmakers will compete for scholarship awards in categories of collegiate shorts and features. There will also be a call for submissions open to all filmmakers in the categories of general shorts and animated shorts. A non-competition category for features will be open to filmmakers that have produced or directed at least two features prior to their film submission to the Freethought Film Festival. The intention is to encourage filmmakers to take on subject matter, which they might otherwise pass due to social or cultural pressures. We want the films to be new.

HNN: How are you spreading awareness about the festival?

Steele: Awareness is being spread through networking with national and international organizations that have a similar goal of promoting reason. I have had nothing but positive feedback from these organizations and a commitment that they will help us by spreading the word to their supporters. Our Website is very informative, and our blog communicates a weekly account of our progress to date. Social networks, such as Facebook, are also a key in spreading awareness of the Freethought Film Festival Foundation.

HNN: What are your hopes for the Festival in the coming years?

Steele: We hope that the very first Freethought Film Festival proves to be a major success as a result of support from freethinkers nationally and internationally. Based on this success, the hope is that the Freethought Film Festival will become an annual event.

HNN: Thank you, Andrea Steele, for talking with Humanist Network News. We’re very much looking forward to the Freethought Film Festival in 2010!