The Atheist Film Festival

The 5th Atheist Film Festival
September 14, 2013
Roxie Theatre, San Francisco. CA

San Francisco has no shortage of film festivals.  There’s the San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest in the United States; the Jewish Film Festival, the oldest and still largest of its kind; the Asian, Latino, Arab, Gay and Lesbian…..

And then there’s the Atheist Film Festival, also the first of its kind, now in its fifth year.  The festival takes place on September 14th at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and includes mainly documentaries plus a couple of “based on a true story” feature films.

Do you believe that right wingers are trying to influence our children?  You’ll find confirmation in two films, “The Good News Club” and “The Revisionaries.”

“The Good News Club,” directed by Scott Burdick, is an investigation of an organization whose purpose is to “share the good news of Jesus Christ” with kids in elementary schools.  As the result of a Supreme Court decision, these “clubs,” supported by MacDonald’s and ChickFilA, have been permitted to set up their programs after school in school buildings and to teach the children, among other things, that they are sinners and that they’ll go to hell if they aren’t Christians.  Since they’re learning these “facts” in school, the kids tend to believe them.  While not slickly made, the film packs a shocking message.

“The Revisionaries,” directed by Scott Thurman, focuses on the Texas Board of Education’s choosing of new science and social studies textbooks, a task that’s performed every seven years.  Led by the genial board chairman Don McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher, and firm believer in the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old and that man coexisted with dinosaurs, the board deliberates whether textbooks must include a discussion of the “weaknesses” of the theory of evolution.  Will the idea pass?  Will McLeroy be re-elected as chairman of the board, which starts each meeting with a prayer?

“Kumaré,” a full-length documentary by American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi, is fascinating and somewhat queasy-making.  Questioning the popularity of new-age spiritualism and the gurus who often lead it, Gandhi moves to Phoenix and, equipped with long white robes and an Indian accent, starts to pass himself off as Kumaré, a genuine guru.  “This is the story of the biggest lie I’ve ever told,” he informs us.  Gradually he acquires a set of loyal believers, whom he instructs in the necessity of trusting themselves.  We get to know these lonely, gullible souls—and to wonder about the ethics of deceiving people, no matter what the principle.  “Kumaré” is an audacious, thought-provoking film.

“Hug an Atheist” is the only one of the festival’s films that I didn’t see. The film’s publicity states, “This is a film about atheists: the stories of people who have come out as atheists, the stories of people who are actively campaigning and the struggles they’ve had to deal with, the stories of every day atheists…” Director Sylvia Broeckx will be present to answer questions after the film’s screening.

In “Creation,” Charles Darwin, played by Paul Bettany, struggles to complete the writing of “The Origin of Species,” while his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a devout Christian, fears for his soul.  Darwin’s resolve is further tested when his favorite child, Annie (Martha West), dies.  The subject of Jon Amiel’s 2009 film is obviously important, but the action is slow, and the melodramatic tone is augmented by too much music.

Even older (2002) but much better—and definitely worth seeing—is “The Magdalene Sisters,” directed by Peter Mullan.  Until late in the 20th century, the Catholic Church in England, Ireland, and other countries ran a series of homes for “wayward girls” in which the residents were forced to do laundry and other menial tasks, for no pay.  Named for Mary Magdalene, the homes were virtual prisons, where the women were physically and sexually abused during their indeterminate sentences.

The often wrenching film is based on the experiences of three young women who endure these conditions and of their fellow sufferers.  “God Is Good” and “God Is Just” are slogans posted over the beds in the barren dormitory.  The nuns, who are paid for the inmates’ services, are sadistic.  Some of the girls have borne children out of wedlock;  some are guilty of simply flirting.  Their stories are inspiring, if often horrifying.  The film was a prize-winner on its initial release.

Tickets and further information are available at

San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.