Gay marriage — and California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that stated only marriage between a man and a woman would be valid and recognized — are topics fraught with passionate debate on both sides.
Which is why the documentary “8: The Mormon Proposition” makes you wish it had been made by filmmakers with more creative, artful inclinations. Or at least more focus.
Director and writer Reed Cowan and co-director Steven Greenstreet depict the campaign to pass this measure — and the influential Mormon Church as a massive driving force behind it — in a surprisingly dry, straightforward way. Talking heads and snippets of revealing documents are broken up with rather literal, cheesy imagery. Amid discussion of the pressure put on members to give crazy amounts of money to the cause, $100 bills are counted off, money falls like leaves onto the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters, and envelopes full of donations tumble onto a table.
The stories from real people give the film emotional heft and make it somewhat worthwhile — people like Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, former Mormons who tearfully describe how most members of their families have ostracized them for being gay. They married each other in San Francisco in June 2008, only to have Prop 8 place the legality of that union in limbo a few months later. (A federal trial over the constitutionality of the marriage ban, which voters passed by a margin of 52-48 percent, is going on as we speak.)
But moving as their tales are, Cowan and Greenstreet are preaching to the choir in showing them. Most people who see “8” are going to share the filmmakers’ viewpoint that what’s happening to Barrick and Jones and countless other gay and lesbian couples is closed-minded and cruelly discriminatory. Protests in front of churches and courthouses feature the usual vocal forces on both sides of the issue: chanting, toting signs and screaming into bullhorns at each other.
Mormon leaders, meanwhile, are uniformly portrayed in speeches and videos as stodgy, pasty, elderly white men photographed in the most unflattering way. A spokeswoman explains over the phone that no one from the church would be willing to go on camera to discuss the Mormons’ role in getting Prop 8 passed because they didn’t want to be front-and-center on the issue. Too late. (Hey, at least the filmmakers made an effort to reach them.)
Ultimately, though, “8” shifts gears toward the end when it focuses on the high suicide rate among gay teens in Utah, ones who feel lost and alone and damned for eternity because of their orientation. One young man, Stuart Matis — who was obsessed since childhood with trying to convince himself he was straight — shot himself in the head outside the LDS chapel in Los Altos, Calif., because he was so tormented.
Here’s where “8” becomes an entirely different movie — a far more compelling one. It’s probably the documentary Cowan and Greenstreet should have made all along.
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