Anthem: The Libertarian Film Festival

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Anthem may not be the first libertarian film festival, but after the success it enjoyed at FreedomFest this month, it may well become the most lasting. With 30 outstanding films by rising artists and ten provocative and entertaining panels, Anthem was called by many FreedomFest attendees "the best new idea you've had in years."

Full disclosure: by "you" they meant the management of FreedomFest, but where Anthem was concerned, they meant especially me, since the film festival was my baby. I might debate the "in years" part of that statement — the producers of FreedomFest have added great new programs every year — but I enjoyed the compliment, nonetheless.

FreedomFest is a big conference: 150 speakers, panels, and debates, and ten events going on simultaneously during breakout sessions throughout the three-day event in Las Vegas. Why add a film festival?

First, I love movies. I love entering another world, getting caught up in a conflict, and seeing how the conflict is resolved. I love being surprised. I even love being outraged. Storytelling provides a powerful way to reveal the truth, even when the story itself is fiction. Ayn Rand was well aware of this power. It's the reason she chose to devote most of her writing to fiction (including the novel Anthem) and scriptwriting.

Second, I want to encourage more filmmakers to produce works with libertarian themes, and a film festival is a good way to do that. In recent years film festivals have blossomed around the country, with thousands of small ones focusing on specific niche audiences. These festivals give low-budget filmmakers a following and a distribution chain. Libertarianism is one of those niches. A hefty grand prize offered by our co-sponsor, the Pacific Research Institute, provides still more motivation for films that fit the theme.

Third, the FreedomFest umbrella offers something most festivals struggle to provide: a convenient location and a ready audience. Most of our costs, and our risks, can be absorbed by the larger organization. It's a great way to start small and grow.

I have to admit, however, that my greatest asset in producing the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival was withoutabox.com. What a great company for festivals and filmmakers alike! Withoutabox acts as a meeting place for filmmakers and festival producers. Filmmakers receive notices every week about festivals and everything having to do with them, including themes, locations, deadlines, and requirements. I asked some of my filmmakers how they found Anthem, and most of them told me they looked through the withoutabox listings regularly. The name "Anthem" caught their attention as potentially Randian, and the details listed on my withoutabox account confirmed their expectations. A look at my website (anthemfilmfestival.com) suggested to them that it was a high-quality, professionally organized festival, and my submission fee ($15 for early bird registrations, up to $60 for last-minute submissions) was low enough to be worth a risk.

It was capitalism in action: efficient, smart, convenient.

For festival organizers, withoutabox offers even more advantages. They handle all the paperwork involved with accepting submissions — the application forms, legal releases, submission fees, and even the advertising, all for a startup fee of $500 and a graduated advertising program. Because I wanted to start small, I opted for the least expensive advertising option: four group ads to be sent out two weeks before each of my four deadlines. The people at withoutabox processed all my fees and sent me a check, keeping a small percentage for themselves. It was capitalism in action: efficient, smart, convenient. I was happy to pay them their percentage, in exchange for not having to hire someone else to do the work.

I received 60 film submissions from sources I would never have known without withoutabox. It was thrilling to discover young filmmakers with libertarian leanings who had never heard of Liberty Magazine, or Reason or Cato or Atlas for that matter. They simply understand instinctively the principles of liberty and want to express these ideals through their art. One of the best parts of the festival was getting to know these young filmmakers and encouraging them to continue making films with libertarian themes. All of them expressed a desire to come back to FreedomFest next year, with or without a new film, just to hear the speakers.

Of those 60 films, I selected 30 to present at Anthem. Our movies focused on issues of individual freedom, personal responsibility, and self-reliance, as well as the problems of government intrusion and overregulation. Many were satirical, some outrageously so. But these movies were not preachy or didactic. They were entertaining, moving, and motivating. They were movies first, and libertarian movies second. I think that's important—storytelling must touch the emotions first, and guide the listener or viewer to experience a truth. The new media available today offer great new venues for presenting a message in this way.

As might be expected in a festival like ours, we had more documentaries than feature length films. Several of our documentaries focused on education, including Indoctrinate U, about the loss of free speech on college campuses in the wake of political correctness; Zero Percent, about the remarkable education program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility that is entirely funded through private donations and inmate tuition payments; and The Cartel, about the plight of public education and how to fix it. This film, directed by Bob Bowdon, was awarded the PRI Prize for Excellence in Presenting Libertarian Ideals.

We also had documentaries about public policy issues such as the environment (Cool It), international finance and economics (Overdose: The Next Financial Crisis and Free or Equal), and the justice system (A Remarkable Man). Each of these films was followed by a panel discussion, with speakers from all over the world participating in lively and stimulating conversation. Bjorn Lomborg, who wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist and is the featured narrator in Cool It, flew in from Sweden for the festival,and Bob Bowdon of The Cartel moderated two panels, one on education and the other on how to use the new media. We even had a panel called, “What’s Wrong with Selling Sex?” that preceded Lady Magdalene’s, a narrative feature set in a Nevada brothel that stars Nichelle Nichols, the original Lt. Uhura of Star Trek.

The film judged Best Narrative feature was "alleged," starring Brian Dennehy and Fred Thompson in a fresh look at the famous Scopes “monkey trial” that challenged the teaching of evolution in schools. The film focuses primarily on the role of the press in shaping people’s opinions. Journalist H.L. Mencken, a darling of many libertarians, comes off as devious and mean-spirited — which shows that libertarian films aren't going to follow a party line. The film was especially timely in the wake of the high-profile Casey Anthony trial.

Marathon is a poignant true story about poet William Meredith and his partner, Richard Harteis, who faced the difficult decision of what to do when Meredith suffered a debilitating stroke. It has a particularly libertarian theme, because the two men don’t pity themselves or turn to government or other institutions for help. Harteis takes care of Meredith himself. The title refers to the fact that they were both marathon runners, but it’s also a metaphor for going the distance when life gets hard. Harteis produced the film and was on hand to discuss it, and the work won the jury prize for Excellence in Filmmaking.

I was particularly impressed with the short films, most of which were made by novice up-and-coming filmmakers. Usually they were five to 15 minutes long, and all of them focused on libertarian issues. Some were serious short dramas set in dystopian futures, demonstrating what might happen to individual liberties if governments continue down their intrusive paths. Others were satirical comedies using humor to make the same point. Final Census, which won the prize for Best Short Comedy, was so outrageous that I had to soothe a sweet old lady who didn't quite see the humor of a census taker who calmly determines the social value of the people he is hired to count, but I laughed out loud when I saw it the first time.

Bright, the film that won the jury award for Best Short Drama and the Audience Choice award for Best Short Film, is reviewed separately below. Its production values, from the quality of the acting to the music and lighting, were remarkable, especially for a film festival, where movies are generally made on a shoestring budget. Bright was made for $10,000, for example, and Final Census for a mere $150. Next year we will have a panel called "Fiscally Responsible Filmmaking" to showcase their feats of funding magic. For a complete list of the films we screened this year and the awards they earned, go to anthemfilmfestival.com.

One of the most difficult problems with starting a film festival is, of course, that of attracting audiences. Even though we had a ready audience of 2,400 people attending FreedomFest, each film still had to compete with ten speakers — and one other film, as a filmmaker emphasized with a hint of disgruntlement at my decision to screen two films at a time. This year our screening rooms were located in the Skyview Rooms on the 26th floor of Bally's, a long walk down the hall and up the elevators from the main action in the Event Center. Potential viewers had to be fully committed before coming to the films — they couldn't just poke their heads in and then decide whether to stay. Our late submissions deadlines also made it nearly impossible to promote specific films in advance.

But these are simple problems, easily rectified before next year's festival. In 2012, I will, for example, probably select fewer films and show them more than once, since word of mouth grew throughout the conference, and many people were disappointed to learn that a great film they heard about wasn't playing again.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival will definitely be back at FreedomFest next year with a new batch of long and short films expressing libertarian ideals. I can't wait to see them, and to meet the filmmakers who will produce them. I hope Liberty's readers will be there too.

But now, let me introduce you to Bright.

Describing the essential requirements of a "skillful literary artist," Edgar Allan Poe wrote in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales from an Old Manse: "The unity of effect or impression is a point of great importance . . . Without a certain continuity of effort — without a certain duration or repetition of purpose — the soul is never deeply moved." Every moment, Poe said, must be "conceived, with deliberate care, [to create] a certain unique or single effect."

These movies were not preachy or didactic. They were entertaining, moving, and motivating. They were movies first, and libertarian movies second.

Director Benjamin Busch has created such a work of art with his short film Bright. It's about Troy (Eric Nenninger), a young man who must overcome a paralyzing fear in order to move forward with his life. Every moment in the film is skillfully and deliberately planned to create a particular effect in the viewer. From its opening moments on, the film establishes a rich atmosphere, filled with symbolic imagery, especially the imagery of light. Troy is raised by a blind adoptive father, Irwin (Robert Wisdom), who represents the iconic blind sage of mythology and guides Troy on what turns out to be a spiritual journey. Irwin is blind, but he can "see"; Troy is sighted, but his back is always toward the light.

In this dystopian future, Troy works as a restorationist, helping people regain a sense of continuity with their past by finding old-style original light bulbs for their homes. This spinoff from the current light bulb controversy is, of course, a metaphor for the conflict between what is natural and what is artificial, what is light and what is dark, in the search for courage and meaning in life.

The pacing is deliberately slow, filmed at "the pace of real thought," according to director Busch, who wants viewers to have time to hear the dialogue. Viewers are able to contemplate the film's philosophically provocative lines: "There's danger in all this safety" . . . "Someone who never sees, never knows" . . . "I miss the light but I can remember it" . . . "I loved and I lost, and I'm glad that I loved" . . . "How much would you pay to be happy?"

Bright is a film to be seen with friends, and discussed in long, leisurely conversations afterward. As Poe said of Hawthorne's Tales, "withal is a calm astonishment that ideas so apparently obvious have never occurred or been presented [like this] before." I think Poe would have been pleased with Bright.

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