Publishing a book can get you into some pretty unusual circumstances. Because my memoir is about losing my Catholic faith, a friend asked me to be a curator for the first ever Atheist Film Festival in San Francisco, which he was producing at the historic Roxie Theater at the end of June. Mind you, I'd never declared myself an atheist, or even an agnostic. The only declaration I'd made of any kind on the topic of faith was that I found higher education incompatible with Catholic dogma. But suddenly I was screening films for a festival that scorned any and all belief in a monotheistic concept.
To be fair, the curating wasn't all that bad. In fact, it was kind of fun. As the independent films started arriving by mail, I'd spend my spare time watching some pretty bizarre stuff. The morbid, angry, twisted, bitter, and melancholic films instantly got the toss. But the comedies. . . They stayed. And truly, as my list grew I realized that except for Theo van Gogh's short film "Submission" (for which he was summarily executed by a fundamentalist Muslim on the streets of Amsterdam), and a somber music video about 911, and a wonderful film showing the deep space images of the Hubble telescope everything that made it to the screen was funny. I honestly hadn't expected atheism to be so hilarious. But then, think about it. Clips from Woody Allen's film "Love & Death" had the crowd roaring. Remember when Woody says to Diane Keaton, "Sonja, what if there is no God?" and Diane says, "But if there is no God then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?" And Woody says, "Well, let's not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I'd hate to blow my brains out, then hear that they found something." Also popular were stand up comedy acts by George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, and Julia Sweeney. Then there were the stock Monty Python shorts ("Okay! Fine! If you insist, I AM the Messiah! Now fuck off!"), some outrageous music videos about evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and naughty wives from the Church of Latter Day Saints, and a whole bunch of animated films by obscure artists from around the world. Nothing I put in seemed even remotely offensive--except maybe to a hardline Muslim, but I figured it was their own fault for not having a sense of humor about themselves.
And then came the day of the film festival, which unfortunately for us turned out to be on the same day as the Gay Pride Parade and the final day of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (the producer Hank Pellissier hadn't realized this when he booked the theater). I say unfortunately because not only did several friends bow out of our festival who would otherwise have attended, but a large portion of our potential audience was going to be preoccupied on the other side of town for the duration of the day and night. Dumb! Stupid! How could we have made such a blunder? There is no force I know of in San Francisco strong enough to compete with Gay Pride, and this fact was rubbed in my face the moment I boarded the BART train and found myself in the middle of a mob of rainbow revelers who were already dancing to the music in their heads. Everyone was going to the parade. Everyone. And they were happy. And I mean happy. They were going to drink and dance in the streets and party all day and night. I probably don't have to mention that I suddenly felt like the unpopular kid who didn't get an invitation to the party. To add insult to injury, I felt like I was going to a family funeral.
And that is kind of what it was like. A funeral. Luckily, the Roxie was packed regardless of Gay Pride, and the festival was a success. But I couldn't help but notice how different our crowd was from the one on BART. Instead of happy people dressed in skimpy clothes, hugging each other, and waving rainbow flags, our festival was peopled by mostly not-very-happy people muttering protests under their breath: old bearded men shouldering grungy backpacks that sported in-your-face button messages like GOD DOES NOT EXIST, scraggy-haired women dressed in floppy hats and multiple layers of skirts and shawls, and droves of middle aged loners who sat apart and left without speaking. Where were all the young people? Where were all the happy light-hearted people? It suddenly occurred to me that no matter how much comedy you manage to squeeze into a theater, atheism is just not sexy. Funny, yes. But sexy? No.
Late that night, when I came home and told my kids about the festival and all the old bearded men with backpacks and the unfashionable women, my teenager echoed the exact words that I'd been thinking all day. "Don't be an atheist Mom. It's so uncool," and for days afterward he would surprise me by suddenly donning the face of an angry old man and loudly grumbling, "God is dead. Get used to it."
So even though my atheist friends are taking the festival global, and are already in the beginning stages of arranging next year's San Francisco event, and are expecting me to help curate again, I think I'm going to gracefully decline. No so much because of the pressure from my kids, or the funereal aspect of large groups of non-believers, but because of the stark contrast between the celebration of what ISN'T with the celebration of what IS. I'm not sure why there is such a huge difference between the two, but I find that there is an intangible something in my heart that compels me to want to say "yes" and not "no." Or if "yes" doesn't work, at least an open-minded "maybe." It's a problem with me, and it's the reason I'm not a very good mother, but it's also the reason I'm a fairly decent writer. I'm open to possibilities. Possibilities make me happy. So if anyone knows of an Agnostic Film Festival, let me know. I have the feeling that ambivalence can be hilarious if you give it a try.
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party