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Gay Marriage: California Lesson-to-Be-Learned in Documentary

Saving Marriage.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Directed by John Henning and Mike Roth, Saving Marriage presents the fight to rescue that much revered – and much disregarded, disrespected, ridiculed – institution that has been around (in various forms) for millennia. No, the film isn’t about Britney Spears getting hitched in Vegas and then getting the marriage annulled two days later. Nor is it about cheating and/or neglectful and/or abusive husbands and/or wives. Instead, Saving Marriage chronicles the battle between those for and against same-sex couples gaining the right to marry in Massachusetts.

The Saving Marriage cast of thousands features attorneys, politicians, gay-rights advocates, gay-bashing advocates, Bible-thumpers, assorted sympathizers at both ends, and the like.

Saving Marriage opens in Los Angeles (at the Regent Showcase in Hollywood) and Boston (at the Landmark Kendall Square) on October 17 ’08. It opens in New York at the The Quad Cinema on October 24 – a mere few weeks before California votes on an anti-gay marriage proposition.

Saving Marriage by Mike Roth, John Henning

Mike Roth and John Henning’s Saving Marriage chronicles the recent fight to save marriage in the United States. Save that failed institution? From whom? Those millions of cheating husbands and wives all over the country?

Nope. From gays and lesbians, cheating or otherwise.

And you thought that traditionalists would want to embrace anyone who could give a boost to an institution that is as traditional as can be (even if procedural details – big and small – have varied throughout the ages and assorted cultures).

Well, think again. To allow gays and lesbians to marry would be to recognize them as human beings whose relationships are on an equal footing with those of heterosexuals. Who would want that?

Well, how about many (most? the vast majority of? all?) gays and lesbians, along with those who believe that in a true democracy every individual should have equal rights?

And thus, Roth and Henning’s Saving Marriage depicts the battle – on both the political and personal fronts – that took place in Massachusetts following that state’s November 18, 2003, Supreme Court decision to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. As soon as the decision was announced, the struggle to repeal that right began. Right-wing politicians and religious leaders vowed to fight for an amendment that would ban gay marriages in the state. On the opposing side, liberals and gay-rights advocates were determined to fight just as hard to preserve their newly acquired civil rights. (See in the q&a below a comparison to a 1967 US Supreme Court decision on interracial marriages.)

Saving Marriage brought to mind a conversation I had with a gay Seventh Day Adventist friend some years ago. At the time, my devout acquaintance was appalled when I remarked that gays were de facto second-class citizens because they didn’t have the right to marry, to have their relationships legally recognized on the same level as heterosexual couples. After mocking my way of thinking, he proceeded to explain in all seriousness that such things were neither important nor a measure of his civil rights. We lost touch long ago, but considering all that’s been happening – and what’s at stake – I do hope he has since changed his mind.

Filmmaker Mike Roth has kindly answered (via e-mail) several questions I sent him. See below.

I’ve also posted the – highly entertaining – Saving Marriage trailer.

Photos: Marilyn Humphries / Regent Releasing

You worked for nearly three years on Saving Marriage. Why so long? Also, Saving Marriage was finished in 2006. Why did it take so long to reach US screens outside the gay film festival circuit?

We started shooting Saving Marriage in March 2004 when we realized that there was a political firestorm brewing [in Massachusetts] over gay marriage. We had to drop everything to get to Massachusetts in time to film the first vote that the legislature took. By the time we had our first week of shooting in the can, we realized that we had already captured a piece of civil rights history and we committed to following the story until the end. The end of the story would be a second vote in the legislature, but there was a lot that would happen before that. No one realized at the time how long the entire process would take. We shot for eighteen months because that’s just how long the story took to unfold. Then we spent another nine months editing.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

We finally finished editing in June 2006, but meanwhile, gay marriage in the public consciousness had hit a lull – it was not the controversial issue that it was in 2004. But then in May 2008, the California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and Proposition 8 – the constitutional amendment that would take away gay marriage – quickly followed. California is such a high-stakes state for both the equal marriage and traditional marriage sides that gay marriage is once again a controversial topic. Once again, the whole nation is talking about gay marriage, and so it’s a perfect time to release Saving Marriage.

In Saving Marriage, you show both the political and the personal sides of the gay marriage issue. What choices did you have to make in order to strike a balance between those two realms?

A lot of those choices weren’t made until the editing process. While we were shooting, we were really fascinated by the complicated process of Massachusetts state politics and some of the brilliant strategies both sides were employing to gain a tactical advantage. But when we started editing those parts of the story together, they just didn’t seem as important as the details of our characters’ lives. Does Arline have kids? Does Amy have a girlfriend? Why is Josh single?

So the political process ended up working as a great narrative structure that we could bookend the story with and build suspense – the movie begins with one vote about gay marriage, but it’s the second, conclusive vote that the film keeps marching towards. Meanwhile, as time is passing, we get to laugh and cry with the characters and watch their transformations as they increasingly understand how much just having the right to marry can change their lives. And as the film progresses and that right becomes more important, the stakes in the political part of the story become that much higher.

Saving Marriage has a clear pro-gay marriage stance, which will quite likely lead some to accuse the film of being biased or worse – to call it “homosexual propaganda.” Were you ever concerned with that label? Also, did you ever consider balancing both sides of the issue while remaining neutral?

Saving Marriage is a documentary film, not a news report. In my opinion, films are supposed to have a point of view, and so I make no apologies for that. That being said, we never wanted to make a film that was just preaching to the choir. The gay marriage opponents do get a fair amount of screen time and they get to make some good points. We were very careful to treat them respectfully in the film, and I think the views they express represent a pretty accurate cross section of the views of most gay marriage opponents.

What was it like to get the anti-gay marriage crowd to be interviewed for Saving Marriage? Did you get many refusals? Also, was it ever a concern not to show proponents of anti-gay marriage legislation merely as out-of-control bigots? I mean, how do you present someone saying things like “same-sex marriage degrades the value of my marriage. It says to me that my uniqueness as a man, as a father and as a husband is irrelevant” while trying to make that person seem rational – or at least reasonably coherent?

It was sometimes difficult to get people against gay marriage to talk on camera. Maybe this was because they distrusted the “liberal media,” or maybe it was because they knew deep down that their feelings were homophobic and didn’t want to share them with the world. I can’t get inside their heads, so I don’t know. And even though a sound bite like “same sex marriage degrades my marriage” might sound bigoted, it was at least an honest statement about how that guy (Kris Mineau) felt, and so I’m grateful to him and the other anti-gay marriage folks who did talk on camera. By the way, Kris Mineau is the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute and the official spokesman for the anti-gay marriage movement in that state. So I think it should be reasonable to assume that he would give among the most rational, reasonable interview of anyone on that side.

In the United States, devout Christians – Evangelical or otherwise – are the ones who tend to campaign most vociferously against gay marriage or gay rights in general. Was special care taken in Saving Marriage so that Christianity and its stance on homosexuality would not be depicted in too negative a light?

Just because the official stance of many churches is anti-gay doesn’t mean that all people of faith have that same attitude, and we wanted to present those various shades of gray. One of the most moving scenes in the film is the first ever legal gay wedding in the United States, performed in a church by an ordained clergy woman. I remember tearing up as I was shooting that. There’s lots of other religious imagery in the film, like the Reverend who urges her senator not to pass the anti-gay amendment, the lesbians wearing prayer shawls at their traditional Jewish wedding, and Barbara L’Italien, a state representative and church cantor who went up against her priest for her pro-gay marriage position, but who never lost her faith. We assume too easily that religious people will be against gay marriage and we just write them off. Unfortunately, we lose a lot of allies when we do that.

Would you say that Saving Marriage tries to convey the idea that “gays are people just like you”? In other words, that proponents of gay marriage are actually all about “traditional values” of love, family, and monogamy?

Gay people are just as diverse as straight people, in that some are interested in the “traditional values” of love, family, and monogamy, and some are not. But those people (gay and straight) who are interested in those traditional values (and I think it’s the majority of people in both cases) should have the same opportunities to enter into relationships that celebrate and support those values. I still can’t get over the irony that it’s the “traditional values” proponents that are the most vocal against gay marriage. There’s nothing more traditional than getting married. The conservatives should declare victory.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

How would you say that Saving Marriage ties the fight for gay marriage in Massachusetts to previous civil rights movements in the United States?

There are some scenes early in the film where anti-gay marriage people are yelling “let the people vote!” In other words, they want to be able to vote on a constitutional amendment that would take the right to marry away from gay people. But as [co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus] Arline Isaacson [right] points out in the film, since when have we put civil liberties up for a popular vote? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that it was unconstitutional to prevent interracial couples to marry, and you can bet that decision was pretty unpopular with a lot of people. Had that decision been put to a popular vote rather than letting the Court do its job and interpret the Constitution, interracial marriage might still be illegal today.

Saving Marriage by Mike Roth, John Henning

Other countries such as The Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark legalized gay marriages years ago. There has always been opposition to such changes to traditional law and custom, but to the best of my knowledge, unlike what happened in the United States, none of those countries had widespread, organized anti-gay protests among either government officials or the population at large. Why would you say that gay marriage was such a hot-button topic in the US at a time when the country was facing so many major problems? And would you say things have changed in the last few years?

I think gay marriage was turned into a hot-button issue by some savvy politicos who saw the power in using it as a wedge issue. They also raised a lot of funds because of it. I wasn’t in those European countries when they legalized gay marriage, but I would bet that people, even if they stood to gain politically, were not fanning the flames as much as certain political and religious leaders were in the United States.

Gay couples have been getting married in Massachusetts for four years now and the sky hasn’t fallen, so I think that people are starting to mellow out and realize it’s really not that big a deal. But it’s a slow process to shift the attitude of an entire country. So when California voters face Proposition 8 in November to decide whether gay people there should keep the right to marry, will they also conclude it’s not that big a deal? I can only pray that they do.

And finally … In Saving Marriage, following the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, one man says, “I’m equal. I feel equal.” Would you say that the legalization of gay marriage actually represents sociopolitical acceptance and/or equality for gays in a (on the surface, at least) heterosexual world?

Gay marriage is the civil rights battle of this generation and it’s the holy grail for gay rights. What is really important for gay people to understand is that you don’t have to want to get married personally for this fight to be important. Once people start using the same word to describe a committed gay relationship as they do a committed straight relationship, they’re going to start thinking of these relationships in the same way. For a lot of people, that’s going to be an evolution. And if people start changing their views about gay relationships, then pretty soon, their views about gay people are going to evolve as well.

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