Considering the rapidly evolving same-sex marriage movement that culminated in the first indisputably legal U.S. weddings of gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts just last month, nothing could be more timely than the NewFest’s focus on same-sex marriage.
These three films present, in ways that are personal as well as political and philosophical, marriage as more than just a legal necessity, and as more than some sort of personal choice—in many cases, as the culmination of a couple’s growing bond and commitment to one another.
“Tying the Knot” explores same-sex marriage from a variety of angles. Historical footage, commentary about the history of marriage, and telecasts of legislators and pundits on C-SPAN and CNN (respectively) provide stark contrasts to two stories of couples who face injustice due to their non-married status.
Director Jim DeSeve gives us painful, tragic close ups of Oklahomans Sam and Earl, whose last names are not used in the film, and Lois Marrero and Micki Mashburn in Tampa. In the case of the former, Earl has died and the farm and home the couple built together are threatened by Earl’s distant cousin Betty Lou, who, as a genetic relative, presents herself as having more rights to Earl’s property than his lover of 23 years. The court tosses out a notarized will due to a technicality, and Betty Lou is seen leading a cadre of cousins circling in on the physical residue of Earl’s estate. Sadly, Sam and his sons have few rights by law, though they still have the right to appeal.
In the case of Lois Marrero and Micki Mashburn, the shooting death of Marrero, an openly lesbian police officer in Tampa, leaves Mashburn unable to lay claim to Marrero ‘s pension. Marrero’s family, who had seemed supportive of the couple, turn on Mashburn, claiming they were really just roommates—never mind the wedding video made ten years earlier—and that Marrero was involved with another woman. And of course, they are putting in a claim for Marrero’s pension.
Contrasting these worst-case scenarios with the newscasts and the footage of activists fighting for marriage rights should make the case for marriage rights clear to anyone. Showing footage of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1970 taking over the city clerk’s office in New York in tandem with hundreds of couples showing up at the same office in 2004 shows just how long the fight in the United States has been going on.
If “Tying the Knot” shows us unfairness, “Late Wedding” shows us a couple that have no dire reasons to get married but do so anyway. This documentary profiles an older Dutch couple, Ale van Dyk and Oscar Janssen, who at the time of the filming have been together 48 years. Jehoshua Rozenman lets the couple talk about their families, their lives, and their relationship. Unlike the other two films in this focus, this one feels less activism-driven, but that’s where its strength is, because hearing the two men talk about their lives, it’s clear they’ve been lucky to have found acceptance from their friends and families, considering how the Dutch didn’t discuss such personal things in the 1950s when the two men met.
“We’ve never felt a great need to declare, ‘We’re gay’,” says van Dyk, but nothing about the relationship was ever closeted, either. The two men simply lived their lives. When gay marriage became legal in the Netherlands, they were not among the first to jump at the chance to get hitched. But, it dawned on them that formalizing their relationship would shore up any loose ends, legally, that might exist in their relationship.
The film includes the couple’s wedding ceremony, where they sit down in front of a clerk, surrounded by their friends and family. The film’s subtle message is that gay men have loving relationships, and create alternative families that support them. Also, marriage means just a little bit more when it’s a choice that’s freely yours, not one that’s denied you.
“Saints & Sinners” is another movie about the choices that face a gay couple. Here, Abigail Honor’s film presents New Yorkers Edward DeBonis and Vincent Maniscalco, who were raised Catholic and have remained Catholic. There are no “recovering Catholic” jokes here as the film charts the progress of their effort to have a full Catholic wedding. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church, with its official posture of homophobia, denies the couple any access to any church’s premises. The two manage to conduct their traditional Catholic worship rituals in the structure set up by the gay group Dignity, which includes a gay priest who leads the services, though in an Episcopal church.
Much like “Late Wedding,” showing the couple talking about their lives, from childhood on, is a technique that makes the gay marriage issue more compelling. DeBonis’ life includes a failed heterosexual marriage, with home video footage from that wedding that shows all the trepidation and anxiety he felt that particular day.
DeBonis and Maniscalco’s story illustrates the struggle of two gay men to worship in a church that has effectively excommunicated them.
“We were baptized as gay people, and we were given communion as gay people,” Maniscalco argues, so why shouldn’t they be able to complete the other sacraments—including marriage—as gay people, too? For those who are not religious, the couple’s quest to have as Catholic a wedding as possible might seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble, but “Saints and Sinners” makes clear how important this is to them.
“April’s Shower,” a feature debut from Trish Doolan, is not a part of the NewFest focus on same-sex marriage, but makes a nice counterpoint to the three documentaries. Best described as a lesbian screwball comedy, the film finds Alex being asked by her ex-girlfriend, April, to be her matron of honor. Part of that tradition means throwing the bridal shower. Rollicking and even straying quite far from reality, the film lives up to time-honored comedy traditions of throwing a mismatched houseful of characters together during an emotional crisis to watch what ensues.
“April’s Shower” aims a fun, soft light on the reasons some people have trouble veering from tradition.