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Anthem Film Festival

Exclusive Interview: Anthem Libertarian Film Festival’s Jo Ann Skousen on Film and the Voice of Reason

Cyborgs, house guests who won’t leave, refugees, revolutionaries, and a congressman off the grid are just some of the subjects covered in the 24 films that audiences at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival will experience this year. Part of FreedomFest, the festival is a non-partisan annual event that will take place in Las Vegas July 11-14, bringing together liberty-minded thinkers from around the world. Besides viewing films, attendees participate in discussions, a pitch tank, mock trials, financial forums, debates, and a party or two, while searching for the voice of reason.

The theme this year is just that: “Where is the Voice of Reason?” I spoke with Anthem festival founder/director Jo Ann Skousen about the direction of the festival and whether films can contribute to restoring rationality to political debate in America.

Talk Reason to Me

Recent public harassment of White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen suggest that reason is on the wane. Can film help reverse this?

Anthem Film FestivalDignity and civil discourse are definitely on the wane. Watching the news is like watching a wrestling match on WWE and sometimes just as fake. One of our films, America under Siege: Antifa, looks at the calculated strategies being used to stir up violence and destroy free speech.

We’ll follow that film with a hard-hitting panel, “The Rise of Violence against Free Speech and Civil Rights” with superstars Trevor Loudon, Bill Whittle, Ari Cohn, Jennifer Grossman, Jake Klein, and Dave Sussman.

If those who love liberty have any hope of protecting civil rights for the next generation, we must step up our game and reveal the puppet masters behind the new outrage. Film is one way to do that.

I was told by an Anthem-award-winning producer to tone down the politics in a screenplay I had written. Isn’t that giving in to political correctness and counter-productive?

Well, yes and no. I don’t think a film has to be overtly political to have a political impact. Consider our award-winning film Everything from 2016. It told the story of a mother trying desperately to find a bone marrow match for her daughter, who is dying of leukemia. A match is found, but the potential donor can’t afford to take time off from work. Logically, the mother should pay the donor’s lost wages. And she wants to. But legally, she can’t, because paying for body parts is forbidden, even though bone marrow, like blood, regenerates.

Anyone seeing that story can relate to the mother’s desperation, and the absurdity of the law. The message is clear, without blaming left or right. That’s the essence of a good libertarian movie. It tells the story in such a compelling way that it transcends politics.

“Reason” sounds like a rather abstract theme. Do you run across it much?

Anthem Film Festival
Jo Ann Skousen, Anthem Film Festival founder, is looking for the voice of reason

Let’s face it. America is losing all sense of reason in our passion for party politics! Look at how often Sean Hannity, for example, condemns the actions of a Democrat and then convolutes the issue to defend a Republican who does virtually the same thing. No reason, just politics.

But you’re right, “reason” isn’t my primary focus when selecting films. I look for films with strong, self-reliant, innovative protagonists who face obstacles created by unbridled authority and then seek solutions through innovation and reason. If the problem is too large to be overcome, I want my audience to be angry at the government authority who created or endorsed it.

The problem we’re facing with immigration, for example, didn’t begin at the border; it began with government policies and regulations in the country from which the immigrants are escaping. Resisting communism or socialism is a natural topic for this kind of film festival, and we have several this year: Wanda Wos Lorenc, about a freedom fighter from Poland; Rosa Maria Paya, about a freedom fighter in Cuba; Mrs. Schneider, a sweet film about a young Brooklyn boy’s interaction with a neighbor from Eastern Europe; and The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler, an eerie story about a missing child set in post-war East Germany.

Freedom Goes International

There are several films in the festival this year from outside the United States. Is that a new trend and what does it imply?

I am very excited that filmmakers outside the U.S. are picking up the cause for liberty! We’re screening films from Iran, Germany, India, and Spain. All of them offer strong libertarian themes. Only one of the filmmakers, Pratik Khandhadiya from Mumbai, can attend the festival, but I am thrilled to provide a venue for these fine films.

In the five years I’ve been covering Anthem, the number of feature-length narratives has been declining. What does this mean for the future of libertarian filmmaking?

Anthem Film FestivalThis is one of my regrets, that we don’t receive enough strong feature narratives in our submissions box. When I find a great one, I highlight it, as we did last year with Courtney Balaker’s outstanding Little Pink House. I’m certainly not biased against narrative features, but my audience demands excellence, and most festival submissions aren’t that good. I think it’s partly a function of money. It costs so much more to make a scripted film than a documentary. Acting isn’t easy! And hiring top-quality actors is expensive.

I am hopeful that providing a venue for libertarian films, like this festival, will encourage more producers to green-light libertarian scripts. Meanwhile, we have nine outstanding short narratives this year, covering topics from envy and revenge to immigration and justice. Most of them are made by women and about women, which pleases me as well.

Do the documentaries we see at Anthem make it onto PBS? It seems like they wouldn’t pass the political correctness test. Where can people see them?

PBS? Maybe not. But several of our films have made it to HBO. And one of this year’s films, Saber Rock, about a plucky young Afghan translator, just won an Emmy last week! Last year’s grand prize documentary, What Happened in Vegas opened on iTunes at number one and is still in the top ten for documentaries. Little Pink House had an excellent national run in the theaters and is now available on iTunes as well. Several of our films are produced by organizations that post them on their websites or offer them to schools after they complete their festival runs. I always post the information about how you can see them on our website after the festival!

Best of the Fest

Which film in the festival this year have you personally found most inspiring?

Anthem Film FestivalThat’s a hard one! I love all the films this year, for different reasons. But most inspiring for me would have to be Skid Row Marathon, about a California judge who started a running club for people living on the streets in L.A.; former felons, recovering drug addicts, people down on their luck. I love this guy because he does a tough job sentencing criminals to long sentences, often bound by mandatory minimums. And then he’s there on the outside, helping them through re-entry and rehabilitation. He teaches them to run – to stick with a commitment – and that spills over into the rest of their lives. One of the runners, a convicted killer, will be with us for the post-screening panel. What a gentleman he has turned into!

Which film do you think will surprise attendees the most?

Surprise them? Hmmmm. Maybe Ryde or Die, a five-minute Hitchcockean gem about a man who gets picked up by a ride-share driver. It really isn’t very libertarian, but I happened to love the quirkiness of the filming and the quality of the acting! Another film with an unexpected metaphor is The Inconsiderate Houseguest. And I think they’ll be surprised by what they learn from Sweden: Lesson for America? and the panel that follows it, “Sweden’s Not-So-Socialist Success Story.”

How is Anthem like or unlike other festivals?

The most obvious, of course, is our libertarian focus. We want films that celebrate self-reliance and innovations and that point out the folly of government intervention. We’re also not a non-profit organization, which means we can’t receive tax-deductible donations. We rely on ticket sales and a few wonderful sponsors to pay our bills. And then there’s FreedomFest. Being situated inside a larger conference that attracts 2,000 attendees gives us a ready audience for our films.

And our filmmakers have a blast. They can go to yoga in the morning, attend each other’s films, sit on post-screening panels, attend breakout sessions at FreedomFest, go to karaoke or clubbing in Las Vegas at night, and of course dance at our awards banquet. It’s a lot of fun!

Attending the Festival

Admission to to FreedomFest includes the Anthem Festival films. FreedomFest speakers this year come from a broad spectrum of liberty-focused viewpoints. Over 250 speakers will participate, including Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, former ABC and Fox Business journalist John Stossel, Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, and political commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano.

Anyone who just wants to watch the films can purchase various Anthem ticket plans separately from FreedomFest.

(Photos courtesy of Anthem Film Festival)

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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