Interview with “Hug An Atheist” Director Sylvia Broeckx

Interview with “Hug An Atheist” Director Sylvia Broeckx September 5, 2013

Hug An Atheist debuts Saturday September 14 at 7:45pm at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco as one of seven films in the fifth annual Atheist Film FestivalI appear in the film. My review is here and my appreciation for how the director Sylvia Broeckx edited the footage of me into the film is here. Sylvia was kind enough to answer some questions I sent her about the film:

Daniel Fincke: How would you characterize the target audience for this film and how did your target audience guide your choices throughout the process of making it?

Sylvia Broeckx: Simply put: curious people. I wanted to make a film that would answer some of those questions that atheists seem to get over and over again. Primarily, the film is aimed at religious people who genuinely would like to find out more. This includes family and friends of atheists as well as theists who just want to find out more about us. It’s not about converting people, but about trying to create understanding. So while making the film I wanted to make sure I didn’t alienate them. I wanted to make sure this wasn’t about us versus them, I didn’t want a film that attacked religious beliefs. I just plainly wanted to share how non-believers go through life and how they approach certain things in life where a lot of people turn to their faith.

A second target group are people who are new to atheism or are wondering if that is what they would identify themselves as. Although this film isn’t necessarily aimed at hardcore atheists, as it is pretty much a case of stating the obvious to most of us, I’d like to think they’d still enjoy hearing other people’s stories and theories.

Daniel Fincke: For this film you made your support for atheists central to your professional work for a year. How did religious friends and family respond to this?

Sylvia Broeckx: It was a mixed response. Most of my religious friends have really supported the project, they understand the need for this kind of project, and are themselves curious to learn more about the topics covered in the film (especially the part dealing with death and grief). There have been some people who “unfriended” me as soon as they found out I was doing this. Being an atheist was okay, being outspoken about it… not so much. I was rather taken aback by some of the reactions of a few people who I did consider good friends. When I researched this project, I was always amazed at the ostracising atheists got in America and how I had never come across anything like it. When I went public with Hug an Atheist, I suddenly got to experience this first hand. And there have of course been the “your [sic] going to hell” and “why do you atheists have to proselytise so much. Just shut the f*** up” messages. Although it is really sad, it also re-enforces the need for the project.

Daniel Fincke:  Where can we see Hug An Atheist? Does it have a distributor? Will we have to wait until you find one for it to be available on DVD or to stream? Is it likely it will be available to stream using Netflix or Amazon or some similar major streaming service? What can those who want the film to get a wider audience to do to help make that happen?

Sylvia Broeckx: As part of the crowdfunding the film will of course be released on BluRay and DVD and will be available though the Hug an Atheist website later this year. At the same time, it will be available for streaming as well. At present we are self distributing, but as the film gets entered into more film festivals, I do hope to get a third party distributor in the future. I’m sure the topic will exclude some mainstream distribution options, but I’d like to think it won’t scare them all away. Netflix and Amazon are great distribution channels, but do not allow individuals films to be added, a film need to be picked up by an aggregator or distributor who can then offer it to those companies as part of a package.

Anyone who has an idea, contact or other means to get this film out to a wider public: please do get in touch.

Daniel Fincke: A lot of people, both theistic and atheistic alike, scoff at the idea that somebody’s non-belief could be a matter of central importance to their life and identity. Having interviewed so many passionate atheists, what would be your response to such scoffers? Why do you think atheism is so important to the people you interviewed? And in what ways does it matter to you personally that you are an atheist?

Sylvia Broeckx: It’s important to me and the people I interviewed because religion is such an integral part of life all around them. Everywhere you look, religion has influence. I’ve been an atheist for many years, and for a long time, it wasn’t an important part of my identity. But once you open your eyes, see how much religion defines the society you are in and realise what an impact it has on your own personal life, it’s hard to close your eyes again and just think “laissez faire, laissez passer”.

Daniel Fincke: 
In a nutshell, what seemed to frustrate the atheists you interviewed the most about how theists see or treat them? And, on the flip side, where did you find your atheists to be less hostile to theists than people think?

Sylvia Broeckx: The general assumption that everyone is religious. Rebecca Hensler compared it to the LGBT struggles. People used to automatically assume that when someone was married, they were married to someone of the opposite sex. These days, especially in more progressive areas, it is no longer the general assumption. And it should move in the same direction for non-believers.

The other thing that mostly bothered the people I interviewed was, as I mentioned above, the influence religion has on public life. Most people really don’t care either way what others belief or don’t belief, but they do care if it those beliefs affect things like public policy. Theists don’t need to fear that we want to do away with religion (okay, some of us would like it if that did happen, but obviously not in a dictatorial kind of way like after the French Revolution). If faith has a place in your life, we don’t want to take that away from you. We just don’t want your religious beliefs dictating our lives.

Daniel Fincke: You film weddings professionally and between your cinematography and your editing choices, I got the impression watching the sequence of this film that’s about love that you really personally love weddings and are passionate about committing them to film. Have you filmed a lot of Humanist weddings? And, if so, what are they like generally? What advice would you give irreligious people who are trying to plan an irreligious wedding about creative things they can do and how they can strike the many difficult balances necessary to feel like what they’re doing is traditionally enough like standard wedding models to “feel like a wedding” while varying from traditionally religious features that go against their beliefs, values, and priorities?

Sylvia Broeckx: You’re right, I do love filming weddings (most of the time) and I love it for so many reasons. It’s a fun thing to be a part of: you get to see people on one of the happiest days of their lives. You meet so many interesting people from all over the world and so many different cultures, it makes for excellent “people watching”. Many people often don’t realise that a wedding is one of the few occasions in life where you are able to gather so many friends and family in one place and that having a good record of it is something quite priceless. It really does become more valuable as the years go by, especially after losing loved ones. On another level, I think it’s important to capture important moments (and mundane ones too) from a social history point of view, but that’s the history geek in me talking.

In the UK you have, broadly speaking, 2 types of wedding ceremonies: religious ones (usually Church of England) or civil ones. Humanist weddings aren’t legally binding in England (they are in Scotland, where they are the 2nd most popular choice of wedding ceremony now), so most of our non-religious weddings are just civil ceremonies. There is the option to personalise a civil ceremony, with readings and personal vows, but the celebrant is a civil servant and often has no connection or affinity with the couple. They are just there to do a job. The humanist weddings that we have covered take the personalisation to a different level. A humanist celebrant really takes his or her time to get to know the couple and turn the ceremony into something made to measure for them. Those are the weddings where you laugh and cry the most. It truly is all about the couple.

The fun thing about weddings these days is that you can really do whatever feels right for you. If a bride really likes that tradition of her father walking her up the aisle and “giving her away”, then she can do that, if she doesn’t that’s just as valid. I think the most important thing about getting married is that it’s a conscious choice and not just “the next thing to do”. So that when you do take that step, that you as a couple have really talked it through and know what to expect from married life.

Daniel Fincke: 

One of the people in the film was Ellen, who has cerebral palsy. How did she come to be a part of the project and what did you take away from your conversation with her?

Sylvia Broeckx: She actually contacted me quite early on during the crowdfunding campaign. When I started the project, I had mentioned dealing with grief, but not with illness. She suggested to me that I should consider adding illness, which I thought was a brilliant suggestion. When I asked if she wanted to be featured in the film, she said she’d love to, but would have to ask her mum. I didn’t realise she as only 16! She was probably the most inspirational person we interviewed. She grew up in a religious family, but realised at quite a young that she wasn’t a believer and stood up for her non-belief, even refusing to do her confirmation. She has thought about her atheism and life in ways that most people never do and copes with her disability in a remarkable way, focussing on making the most out of every day. I love how she wants to help other people with disabilities cope with their illness and not worry about the “why did this happen to me” or an afterlife. She wants to become a writer and I really hope she can make a difference in that way.

Daniel Fincke: 

What were the most insightful things you learned about dealing with death from talking with so many atheists, including several painfully bereaved, about the subject?

Sylvia Broeckx: That it really does suck that we get so little time (even though we are so grateful and amazed that we even get this time). It is so important to make the most of this one life we get, spend it with the people you love, do the things that make you happy, really try to live as full a life as possible. It is so precious and fleeting.

Like Jerry Dewitt says in the film, a lot of us do wish it was different, that there would be some way that we could see our loved ones again. It’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with, especially if you’ve always believed you would see them again, it’s like you have to go through that grieving process a second time.

Daniel Fincke: 
One of the challenges atheists face in communicating what we think is that when we frame ourselves as “atheists”, we implicitly define ourselves by contrast to what we are not, theists. And a lot of this is not our fault since it is theists who have made their beliefs so central to our culture that we wind up so marginalized, put on defense, and defined by how we are not like the majority is expected to be. So the challenge I sensed in making a film about our positive views was that inevitably the atheists you talked to needed to critically address religious viewpoints and explain why they rejected them. Yet at the same time you couldn’t let that overwhelm the many ways that atheists live and think constructively and with no reference to what they don’t believe. So, how did you go about giving time for the necessary pro-atheist apologetic responses to theists without letting the tone of the film be counter-productively anti-theist when its aim is to be a tool for creating understanding of atheists by theists?

Sylvia Broeckx: It was a difficult but crucial balance. A key strategy has definitely been the choice of questions and the way I interviewed people. Although there were a few more generic questions, I did make sure I could give people a chance to talk about aspects of their lives that they are passionate about. In focussing on their passion, they didn’t dwell too much (unless it was key to their story) on their escape from religion. And as I’m sure you can appreciate, never underestimate the power of editing. I always knew I could re-establish a positive tone in editing, but honestly, most people didn’t concentrate on attacking religion. They knew the scope and target audience for the movie from the start, thought it was important and made sure their interview helped the project along.

Daniel Fincke: Have you shown Hug An Atheist to any theists yet for their reactions?

Sylvia Broeckx: No yet, just a few select people have seen it as this point. Apart from some fellow filmmakers, these people mainly consist of press. Hopefully more on this later.


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