March 2007 -- Friends of freedom in America and elsewhere are often distressed that much of popular culture, especially on movie and TV screens, is dominated by those who would limit liberty. Thus, it is refreshing to see a new group that promotes freedom not through political activism but through film, working on projects that have involved even A-list director Quentin Tarantino and gorgeous superstar Lucy Liu.
The Moving Picture Institute is the brainchild of 31-year-old Thor Halvorssen. Halvorssen explains that the freedom movement has done a great job of advancing its cause by using empirical evidence and sound intellectual arguments. But it needs to engage the public on the emotional level as well and not bemoan, but make its mark on, popular culture.
A free society can be sustained only if its ideas, principles, and values are held in the minds and hearts of the people. But surveys suggest serious problems. For example, in one survey, only 23 percent of students knew that James Madison was the father of the American Constitution while 98 percent knew that Snoop Dogg was a rapper. Yet, such facts also suggest that popular culture is a potent medium for communicating ideas, principles, and values. Sadly, most proponents of freedom have been absent from that arena.
In recent years, documentary films have come into their own to spread ideas and worldviews. In 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 raked in $119 million in the United States and another $103 million overseas. In 2006 Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought to the silver screen an argument that one would normally expect to find in science journals or policy papers.
Enter Thor Halvorssen. Halvorssen was born in Venezuela, seemingly biologically destined to fight for freedom. His family in that country goes back to the 1530s. One of his relatives is Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan who liberated much of South America with a vision of Enlightenment principles similar to those of the revolution in the United States.
The Moving Picture Institute promotes freedom through film.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Halvorssen received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history. He had to sue his school when it tried to bar the campus newspaper he edited. Concern for academic freedom led him, over a bottle of wine with Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate in 1999, to establish the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which helps students and academics who are the victims of political correctness and repression on campus. Halvorssen was the group’s first executive director and CEO, serving in that post until 2004.
But he was also interested in the arts and culture. Recently, he explained to TNI that as a teenager he read the novel The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and wanted to make it into a movie. When he was twenty-four, he entered into an agreement to do just that; it’s still in the works.
Thus, it was no surprise when, in July 2005, the entrepreneurial Thor Halvorssen came up with the idea for the Moving Picture Institute. Over breakfast with Frayda Levy on a cold winter morning late that year, he decided that he would invite her to become its president. Halvorssen also recruited Rob Pfaltzgraff, COO at FIRE and a graduate of Tufts with a degree in American studies, to became its executive director.
A film project has many steps: development, pre-production, production, post-production, distribution. At any stage, money or talent can fail to appear; creative differences can occur, or management changes can result in cancellation.
This is where MPI comes in. Halvorssen explained to TNI that the group he founded “focuses on movies that will make a difference in the struggle for American values. We are unlike any other foundation promoting the principles of American freedom. We exist to nurture the development of filmmakers through a major internship program to provide crucial support for filmmakers through production grants, whether it’s for a feature film, a narrative documentary, or a short film.”
MPI, he continues, “eschews the labels ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal,’ or ‘libertarian.’ That allows so many people who might have disagreements over this or that particular issue to all come under the same umbrella.”
But there’s no question about the organization’s purpose: “We view the film industry as unconcerned with exploring the idea of liberty or developing a distinctive and nuanced portrayal of deep-seated American values like freedom of speech, freedom of association, and, especially, the free enterprise system.”
The folks at MPI understand the process of filmmaking, and, in just over a year, have jumped into numerous projects at all levels of production. MPI already is funding eight fellowships.
The company has been involved with three films that already are released and being seen. Hammer and Tickle documented how humor supported the aspirations of freedom-loving people living under communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Freedom’s Fury looked at the literal and symbolic victory of the1956 Hungarian Olympic water polo team over the Russian team, just weeks after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the democratic government that had all-too-briefly overthrown communism. It premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The most recent, Mine Your Own Business: The Dark Side of Environmentalism, focuses on the desire of the poor people in Romania, Madagascar, and Chile to have Western mining companies set up operations that will provide them with jobs and prosperity—and the condescension and callousness of eco-advocates who seem not so concerned about the environment as about keeping the poor of the world impoverished.
The New York opening of Mine Your Own Business was packed; 150 had to be turned away. The Atlas Society, publisher of The New Individualist, co-sponsored the film’s premiere in Washington, D.C.
MPI projects have involved emerging talent, as well as veterans like Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Liu.
But the film also generated just the intolerant and repressive reaction that Halvorssen and Pfaltzgraff fought when at FIRE. MPI invited the head of Greenpeace to the Washington premiere in the National Geographic Society auditorium. Greenpeace, which had not even seen the film, responded with letter to the society calling on it to ban the film from its facilities. The day before the premiere, eighty environmental groups worldwide published a letter condemning the film.
A handful of demonstrators stood outside of the society’s building on opening night to condemn the film as corporate PR and to argue that most residents of the Romanian village eyed by the Western firm for its operations did not want a new mine. The film’s writer/narrator, Phelim McAleer, confronted the protestors, offering $1,000, then $2,000, then $3,000 to anyone who, through a legitimate poll or survey of that village’s citizens, could prove that claim. No one took him up on his offer.
MPI has a number of other exciting projects in the works. Highlights include:
Indoctrinate U. This was the story that inspired Halvorssen to start MPI and that reflects his and Pfaltzgraff’s concerns at FIRE. Written and narrated by Evan Coyne Maloney, it focuses on how institutes of higher education are attempting to snuff out opinions contrary to the dominant anti-freedom ideology promoted by many faculty and administration officials. The film’s executive producers are entertainment attorney Blaine Greenberg and software entrepreneur Stuart Browning, the latter an Objectivist who is now an MPI Fellow working on short films about healthcare. This film is ready for distribution.
Empire of Wealth. The film is based on John Steele Gordon’s book, subtitled The Epic History of American Economic Power—a celebration of America’s rise from small colonies to world power, not principally by means of military might but through the creation of wealth. Currently in development.
A film version of the Kurt Vonnegut classic, Harris Bergeron, is now in the works.
Harrison Bergeron. This is a film version of the Kurt Vonnegut classic about a future society that literally enforces egalitarianism on all individuals. The story shows the terrifying logical consequences of those who want no one to be better than anyone else. Periodic noises blast in the ears of smarter people so that they can’t think any better than anyone else. The best dancers must wear weights on their legs lest they perform better than others. The MPI Fellow who will be directing the project, Chandler Tuttle, carries a copy of Ayn Rand ’s Romantic Manifesto and the U.S. Constitution in his briefcase. Currently in pre-production.
Zabbaleen. In Egypt, this word means “trash collectors.” The film looks at minority Coptic Christians who, through their own efforts in the free market, are able to make a living for themselves and work peacefully with their Muslim neighbors in a part of the world not known for freedom or tolerance. For those interested in Hernando De Soto’s insights on the rise of markets in less developed countries, this film promises to be a must-see. Currently in production.
Thor Halvorssen currently holds only the title of “Founder” at MPI. He has complete freedom to do as much as he wants and other things as well. In association with actor Andy Garcia, he is currently producing a narrative film, Against All Hope, about the horror of life in Fidel Castro’s Gulag and the struggle of one individual who refuses political rehabilitation. Halvorssen has started yet another organization, the Human Rights Foundation, of which he is the president and CEO, and to which he is devoted to during the workday.
Rob Pfaltzgraff is optimistic about MPI’s future. The organization will continue to help promising filmmakers. It wants to assist individuals at every level of the film industry—not only writers and directors, but managers, agents, financiers, you name it. It aims to create a group of people committed to freedom across the industry.
Says Frayda Levy: “Just as there are organizations and associations committed to offering opportunities and intellectual guidance to young professors, lawyers, and journalists, MPI wants to assist the directors, agents, producers, and screenwriters of tomorrow’s filmography.” To that end, MPI has created a Creative Council that includes acclaimed director David Zucker (of Airplane and Scary Movie fame), Rob Long (producer of the “Cheers” television show), Cecilia DeMille Presley (producer and granddaughter of the film industry’s founder—who was also Ayn Rand ’s first employer in the film industry—Cecil B. DeMille).
Freedom in America has allowed America’s film industry to become the world leader. It is therefore only proper that those involved in the industry recognize the values on which their success is based. MPI will continue to remind them of that and to foster those values in an industry that has such a profound affect on American values and culture.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.