Tuesday , May 28 2024

Exclusive Interview: Jo Ann Skousen Takes Anthem Film Festival ‘On the Road Again’ to Memphis with Mike Rowe, Kennedy, Tulsi Gabbard and NBC

The Anthem Film Festival features a wide range of films exploring politics, finance, history, science, and, of course, comedy and romance. A staple in Las Vegas since 2011, Anthem went on the road to South Dakota because of COVID in 2021. It returned to Vegas in 2022, but festival director Jo Ann Skousen discovered that getting out of Sin City occasionally could be beneficial. This year, Anthem, lands in Memphis, Tennessee, July 12-15.

Besides directing Anthem, Skousen is an author (Matriarchs of the Messiah), entertainment editor for Liberty, and a teacher at Chapman University. Until recently she also taught at Sing Sing. She shared with me that men she taught there and experiences she gained there will always be in her heart. 

I spoke with Skousen about the moves, the films, and the celebrities on their way to Anthem. Celebrities will include Dirty Jobs‘ Mike Rowe, TV personality Kennedy, and former Congresswoman and 2020 Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

Mike Rowe will be the keynote speaker at FreedomFest/Anthem

Changes – Good or Bad?

Anthem and FreedomFest have undergone challenges recently. Cancelled during COVID, going on the road to South Dakota, bouncing back in Vegas, and now on the road again to Memphis. Has this influenced the festival, you, or liberty-oriented filmmaking?

You make it sound like we can’t figure out what to do! We loved our move to South Dakota, and so did our audience. The film festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in a grand, vintage theater, and our attendance beat all records. People were hungry to meet in person again, and South Dakota offered historic touring opportunities as well as a governor who never closed down.

We had wanted to experiment with changing venues, and COVID gave us the perfect reason to. But a lot of our attendees still prefer the convenience of Las Vegas, so our plan is to explore new venues on odd years, returning to Vegas on even years. So, we aren’t “bouncing around”; we are making deliberate decisions in response to attendee interest

Jo Ann Skousen runs Anthem – the libertarian film festival

I don’t think our location influences liberty-oriented filmmaking. Films take a long time to produce, and a lot of factors influence a film’s story and production. But I know that our filmmakers are looking forward to being in Memphis, where we can visit such historic sites as Graceland, Beale Street, the civil rights museum, the Ida B. Wells house, and the motel where MLK was assassinated.

Incidentally, we have two films that reference Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the NAACP, this year: Free to Speak and In the Pines. And two of our films discuss the aftermath of the COVID lockdowns: Everyone Is Welcome and Follow the Science. We group our films thematically, with panel discussions and Q&A with our filmmakers. Audience members love having the opportunity to meet the directors, ask questions, and share their ideas. 

What’s the Theme

FreedomFest’s theme is “The Soul of Liberty.” Perfect for Memphis. What is Anthem’s theme and why?

Anthem’s theme is always the same: Individuality, Choice, Accountability. We seek films that celebrate self-reliance, condemn tyranny, and highlight justice. Films can take years to produce, so a filmmaker is not going to make a film based on a changing theme. However, I do group our film selections thematically.

This season I happened to receive several short films that focus on the role of fathers. Two of them, The Broken Boys of Kenosha and Free(d) by Faith, focus on consequences that often occur when a father is not present in the home. Dan Slepian of Dateline NBC will then lead a panel discussion about the tragedy of absentee fathers.

The rest of the films focus more on praise of fatherhood, including foster fathers, grandfathers, and other father figures, with a discussion led by John Papola, who has created a streaming channel called “Dad Saves America.” We’ll be showing his film To My Father about Troy Kotsur, the first deaf actor to receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film has been making headlines and seems to be on track for an Oscar nomination itself this year – and our audience will be able to see it at Anthem. 

Nearly half of your films this year are narratives. This is quite different from some past Anthem Film Festivals. To what do you attribute this?

We do have some great narrative films this year! Don’t miss We’re Here to Help, about Dave Henderson’s battle with Internal Revenue. It’s outrageous and scary and courageous and funny all at once. Our short comedies include a film written and directed by Paul Guay, who wrote the script for Liar, Liar. It’s funny, but it also contains a powerful message about the fight against communism. Paul will also be a keynote speaker at our Master Class, and he’ll be giving a workshop on screenwriting. 

Infraction is based on the true story of Terrance Lewis. He was incarcerated for 21 years for a murder he did not commit. Did you know that even prosecutors estimate that over 100,000 Americans are wrongfully convicted of major crimes? Dan Slepian of Dateline NBC will talk about his career investigating wrongful convictions. One of the men whose story he has told, JJ Velasquez, will be with him to share the tale.

Out of Iran

Two of the films this year come from Iran. How do filmmakers under such oppressive regimes find out about Anthem and get their work to you? Do you make an extra effort to find films like these?

About five years ago a few Iranian filmmakers discovered our festival. They were drawn to our theme of individuality, choice, and accountability. They could see that we care about freedom and civil rights. So they started asking for film waivers in order to submit their films. Because of currency controls within Iran, they cannot pay the submission fee. I grant those waivers every time. I watch every one of them, and I’m impressed by the quality of the filmmaking and the importance of the message, especially about women’s rights. One of the reasons I resisted the mask mandates during COVID is that I associate mask mandates with women’s oppression in the Middle East.

This year I selected two: Split Ends and Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran, another film on track to earn an Oscar nomination this year. But I could happily have selected at least 10 of those films, and my audience would have had great discussions afterward, if I had another day or another theater. But we had so many great film submissions this year! I just couldn’t make room.

So, here’s my announcement. You’re the first to know. I’m so impressed by the dozens of Iranian films I receive each year that I’m presenting an Iranian Film Festival March 10 at Chapman University. I hope it will become an annual event.

Are there any films in the international category that really surprised you?

What surprises me most about the international documentaries is the earnestness of the filmmakers and their subjects. They tug at my heart.

The Dream to Earn a Decent Income focuses on a self-employed Argentinian man who works hard as a gardener, delivery man, and baker but struggles to make a better life for himself in an economy melting down from inflation and populist politics. How can you not be moved by his despair?

Return to the Childhood Home for the Final Farewell is the director’s simple film of visiting the home where he grew up. He intersperses happy clips from home videos as he takes us through the tiny dilapidated building now slated for demolition, and we realize that a family does not need to have money to be rich. I love the people in these films.  

Are You WOKE?

One of pop culture’s most famous libertarians, Kennedy, will return to FreedomFest as host. She’s recently been “demoted” at Fox from hosting her own show to being a guest panelist. Last year’s FreedomFest guest James O’Keefe was booted out of Project Veritas which he founded. Is WOKE winning?

The WOKE agenda does have tremendous influence, and for several years businesses and media have caved to the pressure. But I think the WOKE crowd finally jumped the shark with their push for irreversible, medically induced transgenderism in children and the correlated marginalization of women, and influencers are showing the courage to speak out. Megyn Kelly’s impassioned video about why she will no longer use “preferred pronouns” is a good example. The emperor has no clothes, no matter how he struts and preens, and it only takes a few strong voices to make that clear.

Lisa Kennedy will be the Master of Ceremonies

Meg Smaker, the director of one of our films, The UnRedacted, experienced a horrifying cancellation on the early festival circuit when crowds of protesters at Sundance shouted her down and swarmed her screening simply for being a white woman who had the audacity to produce a film about Muslim men. Her film was withdrawn from subsequent major festivals, and even the producer, Abigail Disney, issued an apology for having financed the film. She was personally threatened and hacked.

But it’s a brilliant film, telling the story of a successful two-year rehabilitation program to help former Gitmo prisoners transition to life outside of prison. Meg was granted close access to the men over the course of two years, and the result is a remarkably intimate film. It is our Opening Night feature, and Meg Smaker will be present for Q&A. 

Fan Girl?

Which celebrities attending this year are people most excited about? Is there someone you personally are looking forward to meeting or seeing again?

Mike Rowe is coming to FreedomFest, and I think everyone will enjoy hearing his practical praise of hard work and entrepreneurship. You might also get a taste of his whiskey! In working with Dave Henderson, the subject of We’re Here to Help, I learned that we have several friends and heroes in common, so I’m looking forward to meeting him. And Dan Slepian is my personal hero. As you know, I taught college English courses at Sing Sing for several years, and I knew a handful of the 100,000 men and women who have been wrongfully convicted. Dan has spent nearly 25 years investigating these cases, and he has been personally responsible for the release of 13 men so far. Jon Adrian Velasquez, one of my favorite students at Sing Sing, is one of them. I can’t wait to see them both.

Tulsi Gabbard will be just one of many celebs at Anthem

Final thoughts?

You’ve seen all the films. If I had only time to see three of them, which ones would I not want to miss?

I’ve mentioned most of them already: The UnRedactedWe’re Here to Help, Infraction, all of our films about fathers, and the free-speech films.

I’m also excited about a simple little film called Student Loans: Do the Math! Every high school student should watch this film to understand what they’re getting into when they sign up for the misnomered financial “aid.” Steve Forbes and I will follow that film with a discussion of how to fix the student loan crisis.

We also have a film produced by Steven Soderbergh this year! The Exiles balances found footage of the protests at Tiananmen Square with current interviews of the major protest leaders. One of them, Wuer Kaxai, will be at Anthem to answer questions following our screening.

A lot of our viewers will be interested in Ithaka, the strangely named documentary that follows Julian Assange’s father’s dogged determination to secure his son’s freedom. I couldn’t help but think of FreedomFest regular Lyn Ulbricht’s relentless determination to secure commutation of her son Ross’s outrageous sentence as I watched this film.

This promises to be the best season of Anthem yet! We have 32 films, 15 panels, and a slew of celebrity names gracing our stage. I do have some regrets. Films that would have been accepted in previous years that I simply couldn’t make room for this time. My recommendation for your readers? Skip FreedomFest and purchase an Anthem FilmLovers Pass to attend all the films all four days. Just $197, and it includes the opening night cocktail reception and access to the FreedomFest exhibit hall.

Find Out More About the Anthem Film Festival

You can find out more about Anthem, including info on all its films, at its website and Facebook page. Find FreedomFest conference information here.

See the trailer for The Unredacted below.

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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