On Location in America

‘Tying the Knot’ has grown from a small-scale venture to a pillar in the marriage debate

In a year when political ads, particularly those funded by 527s, political action committees named for the section of that IRS code that governs them, have enjoyed explosive growth, an unprecedented number of documentaries with a decidely political bent have also popped up to attack or defend presidential candidates and explore issues ranging from the war in Iraq to same-sex marriage.

Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” set a record at the box office for ticket sales for a documentary. “Unprecedented” explores the charges by African-American voters about irregularities in Florida’s recount in 2000. “Outfoxed” looks at Fox News’ claims of “fair and balanced” reporting, particularly in the context of the war in Iraq.

Joining the genre of advocacy filmmaking is “Tying the Knot,” focusing on same-sex marriage, a new film by Jim de Seve with an advovacy perspective. The film was conceived as a small project inspired by the struggles of de Seve’s Indonesian boyfriend to get political asylum in the U.S. in order for the two men to stay together. When same-sex marriage emerged as a prominent political issue, following its legalization in Holland, parts of Canada and in Massachusetts over the last three years, the film took on increased political significance.

The movie focuses on two personal narratives. In Tampa, Florida, a female police officer, Mickie Mashburn, fights for the pension benefits of her deceased partner, Lois Marrero. The two women met on the police force, were married in a commitment ceremony in 1991 and were together ten years when in 2001 a bank robber shot and killed Marrero in the line of duty.

In Oklahoma, Sam is being evicted from his ranch. He is 60 and faces life without Earl, his partner of 22 years. They built the ranch together and raised Sam’s three sons. When Earl died, he left the ranch to Sam in his will, but a legal technicality – having only two signatures and not three—allowed one of Earl’s cousins to challenge the will and evict Sam.

De Seve explained that he carefully chose his subjects with a specific audience in mind.

“I wanted to be able to show a legislator in Oklahoma this film,” he said in a recent interview. “If I were to show this to the members of the Angus Beef Association at their annual picnic, which I want to do at some point, I just want the thing that really strikes them to be someone like Sam.”

For his part, Sam would rather avoid any political confrontations.

“If you ride horses and drive cattle, then I guess I am [a cowboy],” Sam said in his Oklahoma drawl, in town for the movie’s premiere. A veteran who doesn’t like New York or any big city for that matter, Sam thinks being a movie star would be “rather frightening.” However, that has not prevented him from appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, another thing he never imagined he would be doing while Earl was alive.

“I miss him. I miss him a lot,” Sam says in the movie. “If he were here now, I wouldn’t be having all the problems I’m having.”

As an emergency first responder, Marrero’s presence in the movie is less cultural and more political. The flag-draped coffin at her funeral and the testimonials about her honorable service drives home the point that same-sex marriage is an issue that affects members of America’s hero class, particularly in light of the number of gay and lesbian police officers and firefighters killed on September 11, 2001.

De Seve alternates between his subjects’ emotional narratives and news events that have transformed gay marriage into the nation’s political hot topic. Scenes of floor debates in Congress, Mayor Gavin Newsom presiding over same-sex weddings in San Francisco and Pres. George W. Bush’s endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal meant to outlaw same-sex marriage in the Constitution, frame the film. The filmmaker is candid about his political intentions in and proud to be part of the recent trend.

“I wanted to mix politics or understanding of politics with the personal stories,” he said.

Even the marketing of the movie is political. De Seve and Roadside Attractions, the project of indie-distributors Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff, have taken a grassroots approach to marketing the film. Cohen and d’Arbeloff have been a couple for nine years, the last of which they have been business partners. (Their first big hit was “Super Size Me.”) Their marketing approach for “Tying the Knot” is to recruit gay advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Marriage Equality, and the Gay Officers Action League to encourage their membership to see the movie and to spread the word.

“Initially our strategy is to build the gay and lesbian base in the same way that ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was successful because [Nia Vardalos] got all the Greeks to come out and support the film,” de Seve said.

It is a matter of practice for Roadside Attractions to market movies that appeal to established niche markets, like the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but the decision to work on the distribution of “Tying the Knot” was “equal parts business and personal,” Cohen said in a recent telephone interview.

Cohen sees the marriage issue as a high-stakes political one.

“If we don’t win it, we will lose big—way beyond the marriage issue,” he said. Cohen is still a businessman who doesn’t want to lose money and said that this political marketing is cheaper than advertising.

Roadside Attractions considered distributing the movie on DVD, but decided on a theatrical release, hoping that an initial run in eight cities that began last Friday will lead to wider distribution. That would not only serve their business purposes, but their political ones as well.

“If it can have an impact on the debate and help people understand the human element, that would be great,” Cohen said referring to the movie. Besides, he said, political documentaries are educating viewers and providing information not available from traditional media sources.

According to de Seve and Cohen, “Tying the Knot” does just that when it attacks the claim of same-sex marriage opponents that marriage has been a static institution for thousands of years. E.J. Graff, the author of “What Is Marriage For?”, explains on camera how the definition of marriage changed dramatically throughout history with events like the Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case which legalized contraception.

“The idea that you can have sex not just for making babies, but for making intimacy, for making love, is the idea that’s endorsed by legal contraception,” Graff said. “As a society, we have decided that making love is a legitimate reason for having sex and for being married. This is the philosophy same-sex couples fit under.”

As for Sam, his decision to appear on film was in part self-defense.

“When they kick you they kick you so far,” he said, referring to the legal attacks that evicted him from his farm. “You have to do something or go down silently and I couldn’t do that.”

Sam wants to start ranching again someday, but by sharing his story on the big screen he has become a reluctant spokesperson in the fight for equal civil marriage rights.

“I’d rather stay home,” he said, before adding, “but I am hoping it is well worth it for other people. I may not live long enough to see it, but maybe they will.”

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