SAN FRANCISCO — There were no red carpets, no paparazzi, no celebrities, and definitely no God at the recent annual Atheist Film Festival.
Instead, there were more than a dozen films, long and short, about separation of church and state, freedom of religion (and no religion), the conflict between science and religion in public schools, and a couple hundred people eager to see them.
“If we don’t do this, who will?" said festival organizer Dave Fitzgerald, as people picked up atheist-themed books and T-shirts at the Aug. 10-11 festival. “Atheists are not well-represented by Hollywood, and a lot of people don’t get any exposure to real atheist thought except through things like this.”
Fitzgerald, who calls himself “a freelance heretic,” started the festival four years ago. His main criteria for including a film is that it shows at least one atheist figure in a positive light.
“My motto is: Are they heretic friendly?" Fitzgerald said. “We are in a position where we can actually turn away movies because their hearts might be in the right place, but they may be stilted and preachy.”
The first festival started small, with films Fitzgerald rented from Netflix. It moved around the city’s smaller art houses, attracting more viewers each year, with some coming from out of state, Fitzgerald said. Last year, the festival added a VIP reception and welcomed directors to discuss their films after the screenings. About 250 people attended.
This year, it was held at the Roxie Theater in the city’s Mission District, and included the festival’s first prize, for best short film. The Australian winners sent a video of themselves thanking the organizers and raising a couple of Aussie beers.
While the San Francisco festival is the only explicitly atheist festival in the U.S., it is part of a larger trend. Portland, Ore., hosts a Humanist Film Festival; Tampa, Fla., has an International Freethought Film Festival; and Ottawa, Canada, offers the Free Thinking Film Festival.
Jews and Christians have long hosted their own film festivals, and S. Brent Plate, a scholar of religion and film based at Hamilton College, said festivals have the potential to bolster a group's members, reach out to potential followers and educate them about issues.
“An independent faith film festival will create film fests for similar reasons — to be with other, like-minded people, to laugh together and cry together and think together,” Plate said. “It creates a sense of community. And ultimately, it gives people ideas that might trickle back into everyday life. Which is exactly the reason the so-called nonreligious groups do such things.”
Matthew Robinson, who co-wrote and co-directed The Invention of Lying, a comedy starring Ricky Gervais that opened the Atheist Film Festival Saturday morning, said film is an excellent medium to explore faith — and the lack of it — because it prompts viewers to question their beliefs.
“I think the more the word ‘atheist’ is used, the safer it is to discuss atheism and the less atheists will feel like pariahs,” he said as 60 people dined on salmon and wine in one of the city’s Victorian homes at the Friday night reception. “A film festival like this gives a culture to the movement.”
Jay Rosenstein said the festival was a natural for his film, The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today, a documentary about Vashti McCollum, a housewife who was the first to challenge religious teaching in the public schools in the 1940s.
“In documentary filmmaking you are always trying to find your niche,” he said. “When they contacted me, I was excited because I thought, wow, there’s my niche.”
Other screened films included Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary about fundamentalist Christianity’s fascination with Israel; Salvation Boulevard, a feature starring Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan; and In God We Teach, a documentary about a New Jersey student who taped his high school history teacher's classroom lectures about Christian salvation.
Between screenings, the audience did what most moviegoers do at larger venues: They bought popcorn and soda and milled around the theater lobby talking about what they had just seen. Tareq Ahmed, 27, said he attends the festival every year.
“It is tough when you don’t have one set of beliefs,” Ahmed said of the atheist community, which is known more for its division than its unity. “Church groups get together and do X,Y, Z and just because you are secular doesn’t mean you can’t get together and do that, too.”
Kathy Johnson, 58, and her partner Judy Saint, 60, drove about two hours from Sacramento for their first visit to this festival. Last year, they flew to Tampa to attend the Free Thought Film Festival.
“Film is a beautiful way to tell a story,” Saint said, sitting at the back of the Roxie’s smaller theater in a bright blue T-shirt that declared “Ask an Atheist” in large white letters. Turning to Johnson, who is not an atheist, she said, “When we watch these films, she can see where I am coming from and maybe understand me a little better.”