Pictured Mickie Mashburn and Lois Morrero as themselves in Tying the Knot film. Protesters in Tying the Knot.
When independent filmmaker Jim de Séve started working on a documentary about gay marriage in 2001 he had no idea his resulting film would become an up to the moment chronicle of America's latest culture war. Yet that is exactly what Tying The Knot is. I spoke to the eloquent, Brooklyn-based, self-described 'activist filmmaker' as he was leaving a roundtable discussion of the film in Los Angeles and on his way to another. Excerpts from our conversation:
WCT: This is your first full-length movie? Congratulations.
JS: Thanks, yeah, it's been quite a process and an unbelievable amount of work.
WCT: Can you tell me how did you come to make the film? How did it all happen?
JS: The film really started from a personal experience. I had been together with my partner for five and a half years and we faced that sort of classic gay couple problem—I'm from the United States and he's from Indonesia—and when we fell in love, of course, he can't stay in this country on the basis of our affections for each other.
So that just opened my eyes to what are the structures in society that allow some people to stay together and doesn't allow others? That was sort of the jumping off point from a very personal point of view. As I started investigating what marriage is, what marriage means in our society, what the history of marriage is, and about the movement to open marriage to gay and lesbian couples, it just made me realize that there's such a terrible distinction.
WCT: What's the status of your relationship?
JS: Kian was able to get political asylum. He's ethnic Chinese and the ethnic Chinese are really oppressed in Indonesia. He should've gotten his green card three years ago and to the great distress of my palpitating heart we got a letter from the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago that said that his green card will now be available in 2008.
WCT: Oh my God.
JS: We're just trying to pretend that that's not an issue.
WCT: So how did you find your primary subjects, Mickie (Mickie and Lois) and Sam (Sam and Earl)?
JS: I read about Mickie in The Advocate and I gave the Tampa Police Department a call and she was into being in the film and Sam I heard about through Paul Cates at the ACLU, the gay and lesbian liaison for the ACLU. They had filed an amicus brief in his case so he was really familiar with his story and they were looking for someone to cover it and they gave him my number and he just called me up. I think it's incredibly brave for Sam, who is a gay man living in rural Oklahoma, to be in something that's so high profile now. We talked about those risks and he decided that he really wanted to do it.
WCT: That's terrific. You've said that this is not a gay documentary. If it's not, then what is it?
JS: I think it's a documentary about social injustice. It's a diatribe about human rights. I think any civil-rights struggle, which this is, comes down to the treatment of any human beings. They're either being treated well or not being treated well. The theme is universal. It's about honoring and respecting people and their relationships, giving dignity to their lives, which I think is universal and I think, goes beyond the 'gay' label. I avoid using that term because it's not about gay marriage, which you might argue is civil unions and domestic partnerships. This is about opening up the institution of marriage for gay and lesbian couples and incorporating us into the institution that now exists for all other people.
WCT: Do you have any plans to make the film available before the election like Outfoxed from MoveOn.Org?
JS: What happens theatrically is going to determine a lot of things. If we get a good response on opening weekend and people really come out and support the film by buying the film then we're looking at going beyond the 20 markets where we are now into many more markets. That opening weekend is so important. If there's anyway you can encourage your readers to see it opening weekend that would be great.
WCT: Will do.
JS: We're also looking at doing fundraising screenings. We have one set up in Oregon to help open a dialogue to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment there. We're talking to different people about doing a non-theatrical tour, to bring it to universities, benevolent associations.
WCT: Please do that in Chicago.
JS: I'd love to. You know my roots are really in film and photography but my real heart is in activism so for me to take this film and be able to roll all that together has been a great experience. I get really excited when I hear that we're going to be doing a community screening. My dream would be to get a big R.V. with a big movie screen on the side and stop at the mall and have people give me 82 minutes of their time and see if I can change their minds.
WCT: So, now obviously, you're an expert on the issue. Do you have any predictions on when the DOMA will be repealed or when gay-lesbian marriage will be legalized?
JS: Let me answer that this way: I think that we're in a protracted war, basically, a culture war and I think for every victory we have, for every Massachusetts, they come back at us with the armies—you know, the 11 marriage amendments that are happening in swing states in this election which is being done to mobilize right-wing voters who might be disillusioned with Bush on other issues to get out there and do the right thing. It's an incredible effort by Karl Rove and the Republicans and a not-talked-about-enough effort to really motivate the Christian right who think that Bush hasn't done enough on abortion to defend 'marriage' at the poll and while they're out there, also pull the lever for Bush. It may be the issue that actually wins Bush the election. I hope it isn't. A lot of people just don't understand the dynamics of what's happening with this election.
WCT: I'd agree with that.
JS: So when you look at all the fire power that comes back at you when you have a victory it's pretty daunting but as the saying goes, 'It's always darkest before the dawn' and I think with all the crap they keep throwing at us we do have the ability, if we stay on top of it, to make sure that we're ultimately victorious and that justice will win out. I think we will be.
WCT: I like hearing that.
JS: I think the one thing they're really counting on is the Federal Marriage Amendment and the fact that it didn't get enough support in Congress was a bit of an embarrassment to Bush which was good and that's the one thing that would really kill our chances of really reversing all of this stuff that's come against us. We have to enlist straight people in the fight because no minority ever won a civil rights battle without the involvement of the majority.
WCT: So how do we do that? How do we get straight people or conservatives to see your movie?
JS: I think what we need to do first is build a gay base. I just had a screening in Fresno and got a rousing standing ovation at the end, it was really amazing.
WCT: I think Michael Moore had the same problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 because of course, every liberal, every college kid went to see it, isn't this all just preaching to the choir here?
JS: Well, we're preaching to the choir but the choir needs preaching to sometimes. People need to get motivated and feel, 'Let's go out and do it' and I think that was some of the feeling that Fahrenheit 9/11 left you with. What we need to do from a business point of view first is to build a base. If we can get gay and lesbian people to come to see it and be involved and be excited about it and to show that the film can stand on its own two legs, then we can expand it into other markets and then we'll have the big commitment and belief in it once the community starts inviting family and friends to see it. We're mindful of that 'preaching to the choir' thing but we need the choir behind us and if we sing loudly enough everyone in the country will hear it.
WCT: Amen brother! (laughs) OK, so, what's up next for you?
JS: We'll see how this goes. This has been like a full-time job for the last four years and now it's like a double full-time job for next few months. I've got some other things in the back of my mind but my main commitment now is making sure that this movie does the activist work that it was meant to do.