The Case Against 8 ****1/2
We didn’t know much about this documentary when we went to see it last night. We were just looking for a film that we’d enjoy.
When we left the theater, we felt as if we had hit the jackpot.
Not only were we totally absorbed by the almost two hour film, we happened to attend the night the two directors, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, and two of the four plaintiffs, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, were present and answered audience questions about the film and about themselves.
First, the film.
In the same election that brought Barack Obama to the White House in 2008, the voters in California approved Proposition 8, a law banning same-sex marriage.
The LGBT community was surprised at that vote, and as a result of it, a small group of people decided to fight the law in the courts. They were able to convince Ted Olsen, the conservative lawyer who argued and won the Bush v. Gore case before the Supreme Court, and David Boies, the liberal lawyer who argued and lost that case, to join forces to overturn Prop 8.
Two men, Ben Cotner and Ryan White got permission to document the process of bringing the case to court. That turned into a five-year process, and what Cotner and White produced ended up winning the US Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Festival in 2014.
As part of the strategy to challenge the 2008 law, Olsen, Boies and the American Foundation for Equal Rights (the group formed to fight the law) chose two gay couples as plaintiffs, Jeff Zarrillo/Paul Katami of Los Angeles and Kris Perry/Sandy Stier of San Francisco.
Just as the decisions to have Olsen and Boies take the case and to allow Cotney and White to film the process, the choice of these particular four individuals as plaintiffs was significant. The two couples were chosen because in many ways their lives were ordinary. They were not activists. They didn’t seek out the roles of fighting Proposition 8. But they were chosen because of who they were as individuals and because it was felt they would be sympathetic plaintiffs.
At the outset, no one expected five years of court wrangling and trials. It was thought that the case would get to the Supreme Court where no one truly knew what the outcome might be. The LBGT community initially thought it was too soon to bring a major case.
The film is satisfying and successful on several levels. Whether or not you know the outcome of the case against Proposition 8 doesn’t really matter. Because the directors had access to everyone for the entire five years and through skillful editing, the documentary is engrossing (for Ellen and me it was suspenseful too) and endearing.
It is fascinating to watch Olsen and Boies (two of the best at what they do) strategize, prepare their case, work with the plaintiffs, and proceed throughout the five years.
No matter where you stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, simply watching the two couples over the five year period is as much what makes the film successful as is witnessing Olsen and Boies at work. To say the two couples are normal somehow doesn’t seem accurate (or fair). They are appealing individuals who simply want to live their lives with the same civil rights as heterosexual couples.
Know that even David Blankenhorn, author (The Future of Marriage), the primary witness for the defense and a champion for Proposition 8, by the end of the film changes his mind about opposing gay marriage (read his How My View on Gay Marriage Changed.)
This documentary is definitely one-sided in that the filming is only about how this group of people went about challenging Proposition 8. It does not claim to be “fair and balanced.”
But it is not a polemic either.
It simply tells a story.
Actually, several stories.
One is endearing one.
One is fascinating.
Both stories are captivating.
And both, in different ways, help give some clarity to why there has been such a significant shift in how the issue of same-sex marriage is now seen in this country.
Second, the discussion afterwards, a lagniappe.
Ellen rarely is willing to stay for a discussion following a film. Last night, she was not only willing, she even asked a question.
The two women plaintiffs spoke about the effect the film had on each of them and on their family (four boys). They talked about the pressures and the distractions they felt throughout the four and a half years. They were most worried about their two younger sons who were living at home and were in high school. They said the boys were protective of their parents and seem to have benefited from the contact with everyone involved in the case.
With their sons now off to college, they are ’empty nesters’ and just able to live what they termed ‘ordinary lives’. They talked about understanding the issue was bigger than their own situation, bigger than just their trial. And, they said, “We understand what it takes to move an issue along now. We’re more committed to working on issues we believe in (not just LGBT ones). It inspired us and changed us.”
The two directors said one of the hardest parts of making the film was that for almost three years they didn’t even know if they had a film. They were simply recording everything that was going on.
They see the film as a character story, perhaps even a love story, as much as a film about what happened with Proposition 8. They said, “It was less a film of being for or against the issue of same-sex marriage as it was about telling the story of the four plaintiffs and their lives.”
In answer to a question about the role played by Ted Olsen, they said, “he was invaluable, not only in his courtroom presence, but also in helping to change public opinion, changing American minds.”
They also praised Kate Amend and Helen Kearns for their editing of more than 600 hours of film and helping put it into a format that told the story of the case and also the story of the two couples.
The Case Against 8 is currently being shown in small theaters around the country, prior to airing on HBO on June 23rd.