To Live and Write in LA

Interview: Jo Ann Skousen, Anthem Film Festival Founder

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

According to its founder and director Jo Ann Skousen, the Anthem Film Festival wants to provide a venue for filmmakers who care about individuality and libertarian ideals.  Anthem is part of the libertarian FreedomFest conference, which will be held July 8-11, 2015, at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.  Skousen also serves as the entertainment editor and chief reviewer for Liberty Magazine, and teaches literature and writing at Chapman University and at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

Jo Ann Skousen, Anthem Film Festival Founder and Director

Jo Ann Skousen, Anthem Film Festival Founder and Director

I spoke with Skousen about the festival and libertarian films.

Was the Anthem Film Festival your brainchild, and has it developed as you expected?

I love small independent films that focus on character development, inner struggle, and plot development. But so often, those films get lost in the crowd of studio blockbusters at the cineplex, and most film festivals struggle to develop an audience. In 2010 I looked at our audience of over 2,000 FreedomFest attendees and thought, “We could create a film festival right here.”

Last year we had over 1,000 viewers at two of our evening film events, projecting on three screens simultaneously in the Planet Hollywood Celebrity Ballroom. Enthusiastic Q&A lasted for nearly an hour after each of those events.

Is there a “libertarian litmus test” for films to be shown at Anthem?

‘America’ won last year’s award for Best Documentary

‘America’ won last year’s award for Best Documentary

We don’t have a litmus test per se, and sometimes even my judges are surprised by my selections!  I’m looking for heroes who follow their own paths and don’t wait for the government to fix things. Several of our films this year talk about government intrusion, including “Police Strike Force,” Power’s War,” “Farming in Fear” and “Imminent Threat.”  But others present stories individual heroism and personal choice, like “Shelter,” “Stumped,” “When We Meet Again,” and “Vision.”

What is the most successful film that has ever played at Anthem?

It depends on how you measure success. We’ve had a few films that have enjoyed nationwide distribution. Bob Bowdon’s “The Cartel,” about school choice, was our first grand prize winner and had nationwide distribution. “Zero Percent” was on HBO this year, under the title “University of Sing Sing.” “Atlas Shrugged” and Dinesh D’Souza’s films probably had the most commercial success.

But I also measure success in watching our filmmakers grow. Last year’s Grand Prize Winner, “Poverty, Inc.” has been touring the world with its message of free market solutions to global poverty, and the producers are having an enormous impact on policy and practice. Janek Ambros came to our first festival as an attendee, and left determined to come back the following year with a film. In fact, he has submitted a film to every season of Anthem. This year’s “Imminent Threat” was executive produced by James Cromwell and part of it was filmed right at FreedomFest. His next film, “Ten Thousand Saints,” is getting great reviews. So I count that as an Anthem success, even though most people have never heard of Janek Ambros — yet.
Atlas Shrugged 3 won the 2014 Best Narrative Feature award

Atlas Shrugged 3 won the 2014 Best Narrative Feature award

Is there a film that you expect to be an audience favorite this year? 

Judging by my judges’ reactions to the films, there are many favorites but no clear winner. In fact, two films have been either at the very top or the very bottom for different judges! We have provided a tremendous variety of topics and themes this year. The short documentaries are especially strong. “Vision: Healing the Blind in Ethiopia” shows how something as simple as fixing cataracts in the elderly affects the entire community in terms of production and quality of life not only for the blind person, but for the people who had to care for them.

And I love the libertarian angle — they aren’t just fixing cataracts, they are training local practitioners to fix them as well, So the whole community becomes self-reliant. “Police Strike Force” is a chilling tail about police abuse that people will be talking about for a long time.  And “Power’s War,” about a family of prospectors gunned down in 1918 during a no-knock raid for refusing to sign up for the draft — refusing to sign up for the draft! — is probably our surprise of the season. Our short narratives are fun, quirky, and thoughtful, and often have a surprising twist. I think this is our best lineup ever.

This year there are fewer features length film, five, than last year, nine, and one of those is not in competition. Have people stopped making libertarian films?

Not at all! In fact, I think we’re seeing more Hollywood celebrities coming out of the libertarian closet right now — and we’re hoping to attract some of them to Anthem in the future. And we received more submissions this year than ever before, so,  I think more libertarian films are being made now, not fewer.

What’s the future going to be like for libertarian minded filmmakers and the Anthem festival?

The festival slogan for 2015

The festival slogan for 2015

Every year I worry: Are we going to get any decent films this year? And every year it’s better than the year before. My hope is that we will start getting some better quality feature narratives. Documentaries are easier to make, because all of the people on the screen are being themselves. They act natural, because they are natural. It’s harder for first-time directors on a shoe string budget to attract top-quality actors, and it shows.  I’m hoping that the existence of a libertarian film festival with a good track record like ours as a stepping stone to future projects will help these filmmakers secure better funding.

Anthem Film Festival Info:

For first time visitors the festival offers a $149 Film Lovers Pass which includes all film events plus the opening night cocktail reception, the John Stossel taping, and the exhibit hall.  You can register at theFredomFest site and keep up with festival news on its Facebook page and on twitter.

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An exploration of film and filmmaking