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Exclusive Interview: Anthem Film Festival’s Jo Ann Skousen – Cowboys, and Vampires, and Laughs, Oh My!

I was walking down a hallway at the libertarian FreedomFest convention in 2012 and saw a sign indicating that movies were being shown in one of the conference rooms. I checked it out. Seven years and a couple of hundred movies later, the Anthem Film Festival at FreedomFest has become my favorite festival for challenging, fun, and important films. It runs this year from July 17-20 at the Paris Resort Las Vegas.

Renaissance Woman

Jo Ann Skousen, festival director, author and teacher

Jo Ann Skousen writes books (Matriarchs of the Messiah), works as the entertainment editor for a prestigious journal, teaches college courses to inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and in her free time co-directs the largest libertarian get-together in the world. And, she is the Anthem Film Festival founder and director. I spoke with her about the challenges, surprises and satisfaction she gets from the festival.

Wild West Time

FreedomFest has a Wild West theme this year, and one of your featured films, Miracle in East Texas, is a western. Is there a connection there or was that just serendipity?

I don’t announce the FreedomFest theme when I open the Anthem festival for submissions, so it’s always serendipitous when a film happens to fit the theme. I would have accepted Miracle in East Texas no matter what, so the fact that it takes place in Texas with a couple of con-men during the wild-catting days of the 19th century was a nice bonus. Having Kevin Sorbo, John Ratzenberger, and Lou Gossett, Jr. in the cast is an even nicer bonus!

We have a couple of other films this year that loosely fit the Wild West theme. The first act of Love Immortal is set in pioneer times, and The Surge imagines a day without laws or regulations, very much like the Wild West before statehood. The Surge is a lot of fun and makes a great point at the same time.

There are more feature length films, including narratives, on your schedule this year than in the recent past. Is there a trend toward liberty themed films? Why or why not?

I think there is always a trend toward fiction; all budding filmmakers have a great story they’re dying to put on film. But fiction is a lot harder to produce than documentaries, especially on a shoestring budget—and let’s face it, most festival films can barely even afford the shoestrings. So, it’s hard to find feature length narratives with acceptable acting, decent production values, and a libertarian theme to boot. This year we’re blessed with three, and I couldn’t be happier. We’ll be showing one every night at 8:00 PM. I think you’ll be especially surprised by the quality of aKasha, a quirky, anti-war love story set in the Sudan and directed by Sudanese filmmaker Hajuj Kooka. I’ve watched it three times now, and each time I like it even more.

And Love Immortal promises libertarian vampires? Tell me more.

Yes, Love Immortal sports a bloodsucking U.S. Treasury agent—don’t you love that metaphor? — and a third-generation vampire who quotes Mises to her economics professor. The acting and pacing are a little uneven, and I’m not personally a fan of vampire movies, but the theme is philosophically sound. Where else are you going to find Rand Paul discussing economic policy in the background of a horror movie? Ya gotta love it.

The documentaries this year spotlight topics burning up the airwaves such as ultra-powerful social media and suppression of free speech on campus. What do you see as the highlights in this area?

No question, The Creepy Line will scare you to death. We’ve all become so reliant on Google for research and Facebook for mass communication that turning either of them off is as unlikely as moving into the wilderness to live on berries and wild honey. Yet, as this film makes clear, both have the power to destroy our security and our liberty. They manipulate by deciding what we’ll see first in a search, and they have the power to censor simply by freezing or deleting our accounts. In two short decades these private entities have become as powerful as the state. And we’ve done it to ourselves.

The Fight of our Lives: Defeating the Ideological War against the West also sounds the alarm of how we are gradually and unintentionally giving away our security, our liberty, and our way of life, and in many ways we are ashamed to defend ourselves. A sea change is happening in America as significant as the cultural change that occurred when settlers expanded westward. In that sense this is another documentary that serendipitously fits the FreedomFest theme. The post-screening panel for this film will be dynamite.

Any celebrities attending this year?

Kevin Sorbo, Hercules, Alongside Night, will be a mainstage speaker opening night and will also be a panelist at our Filmmakers Reception and Master Class, “Pitch Perfect: How to Make your Pitch without Losing your Voice.” Hollywood biographer Marc Eliot will also appear on the panel, as well as Harmon Kaslow, who produced the Atlas Shrugged trilogy. Kevin O’Leary and Penn Jillette are presenting this year as well.

Most of the films we’ve talked about have been pretty serious. Will there be laughs at Anthem and FreedomFest this year?

We’re doing a whole session on satire as a tool for promoting freedom. Demand Curve takes experimental economics to a whole new level when an economics professor is kidnapped and uses economic principles to help his kidnappers get their ransom deal and his freedom. The Last Straw takes on political correctness in a speed dating setting. The Atlas Society’s “Draw my Life” series has submitted a satirical take on victimhood. And Love Gov — Anthem’s Best Libertarian Comedy in 2016 — is back with a whole new story line about housing, employment and government handouts.

Anything unusual this year?

I was surprised this year when a number of Iranian filmmakers began sending me requests for fee waivers in order to send their films to Anthem. Due to currency controls they could not send money out of the country, but through the magic of the internet, they could bounce their movies up to a satellite and bounce them back down to my computer in Orange County — which is much more significant than submission fees! In every case I granted the waiver.

Iran has a robust film industry with impressive directors, cinematographers and editors. I wanted to see their films. I also wanted to see their messages of freedom. One of our directors has had to flee to Germany because of persecution after he produced Raheel. Tangle, with its hand drawings and emotional music, brought me to tears. And The Stain is one of the finest psychological studies of the unexpected consequences of war I’ve seen. I am very proud of curating these films by Iranian directors, and they will open the festival Thursday morning.

Final thoughts?

This is our tenth season, and I couldn’t be happier with the quality of our films. Every year I wonder, will I be able to curate a decent festival this year? Will freedom-loving directors find my little festival? And if I produce it, will the audience come? Some directors become regulars, bringing us a new film every couple of years and becoming part of the Anthem community. But every year a handful of top-quality new filmmakers find their way to Anthem, offering up something new and wonderful to share with our audience. This is another one of those years. I like to think our festival is creating a creative place for liberty and a home for libertarian filmmakers.

You can find out more about Anthem, including the entire lineup, at their website and Facebook page.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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