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Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Fourth Annual Atheist Film Festival Believes In You

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2012 at 7:30 AM

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This Saturday, the Atheist Film Festival will take over the Roxie Theater for the fourth year running, something that will no doubt surprise the, um, "hell" out of lots of people who never knew such a thing ever existed.

The image of Hollywood as ground zero for every variety of sin and soullessness is so firmly entrenched in our cultural mind that on first glance, it's understandable to think a film festival dedicated to promoting a secular worldview is redundant. After all, aren't the Christians the ones always complaining about how movie-makers ignore them?

Dave Fitzgerald
  • Dave Fitzgerald

Dave Fitzgerald, a local activist and film geek who founded the Atheist Film Festival four years ago, sees it differently. Hollywood films, he says, typically put secularists in the role of the Straw Vulcan, who will deny anything that's not simpatico with established science so fanatically that their devotion to reason itself becomes illogical. Think Agent Dana Scully in the fifth or sixth year of The X-Files, devoutly insisting that the strange happenings were probably just neighborhood kids or drug dealers instead of psychic aliens, as though the previous 126 episodes had never happened. "Even though Hollywood has this reputation for being godless and sinful, a lot of movies that come out of Hollywood have a really skewed view against science and rationality, and they treat atheism as either this sad, lonely thing," Fitzgerald said. "Or they treat atheists as these killjoys who pooh-pooh anything and get their comeuppance in the end."

Atheists themselves remain a novelty for many. Even in San Francisco, the Straw Vulcan stereotype is alive and well. Say that you don't believe in any deity, not even the god of pro-gay, environmentally friendly liberal Christians, not even Buddha or the Goddess or Pinkie Pie or some vaguely-defined "energy force," and many people think there's something broken and dead inside you, like a congenital sterility of character.

For Anne Sauer, the festival's Director of Operations, the reality of living without faith is the exact opposite of the bleak stereotype: "For me, living without a higher being or greater power gives our lives much more meaning," she says. "The fact that we only have this one life to live and that the only beings that can make it better are other people gives me my motivation for how I live my life and the way that I choose to treat fellow human beings."

The closest this year's schedule comes to a mainstream film is the 2009 comedy, The Invention of Lying, which depicts an alternate world in which untruth of any kind -- even fiction -- is unknown until Ricky Gervais' character suddenly finds that he can say things that aren't true. With this epiphany, he also invents religion. Gervais' co-director, Matthew Robinson, will be on hand for a Q&A session after the 10 a.m. showing on August 11.

The other films being shown this year are much more obscure, a mix of documentary and feature films that critique religion and question its place in our culture much more bluntly. Greta Schiller's No Dinosaurs in Heaven looks at the modern-day struggle between so-called "intelligent design" and the theory of evolution for space in our public schools.

Jay Rosenstein's The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today looks back at Vashti McCollum's 1948 lawsuit against her son's school for teaching religion in the classroom. McCollum's case went to the Supreme Court, establishing one of the key precedents for separation of church and state in America. (Rosenstein will also be doing a Q&A.)

So much of this stuff seems like it should have been settled long ago. The Scopes "Monkey Trial" was almost 100 years ago now, and the thought that a documentary over battles about the very same topic is relevant today is a depressing illustration of just how much religion is used as a political tool. Even more dangerously, some believers are more interested, even to the point of eagerness, in the issue of how the world ends, a topic explored in Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary about the Evangelical fetishization of the end of the world.

The festival ends with a film that Fitzgerald is especially enthusiastic about called Day Night Day Night, which tracks a teenaged suicide bomber over 48 hours as she prepares to blow herself up in Times Square. "It's one of the most unforgettable things I've ever seen," Fitzgerald says. "It's not a talking movie. There's no discussion of why she's doing it or who she's doing it for. It's so intensely personal; you see what she's going through to prepare herself to do this, and it just sort of moves inexorably towards the conclusion. One of the things that I really like about is that it makes its point without having some talking heads say it."

Ironically, it's easy to look at the festival's name and expect to be preached at, a reaction that Fitzgerald says he gets a lot. "One thing I loved this year especially is that we realized there's a lot of atheist films out there, and we don't have to accept them if they're preachy and boring. It doesn't matter if their hearts are in the right place if they make bad movies."

The Fourth Annual Atheist Film Festival takes place on Saturday, August 11 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16 St. (at Valencia). Admission is $10-$50.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Chris Hall

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