When the California Supreme Court rules whether to let Prop. 8 stand, Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko will have a front-row seat to history. It’s more likely the S.F. filmmakers will be on their feet, cameras in hand, recording the moment for their forthcoming documentary. Tentatively titled Winter of Love, it uses the legal battle as a framework for both an individual and big-picture look at the increasing acceptance of gay marriage.
A few months before the court agreed to hear oral arguments in the spring of 2008 for In re Marriage Cases, the proceeding that led to the 4-3 ruling that revoked the ban on same-sex betrothals, Maya Scott Chung from Marriage Equality USA asked the filmmakers if they’d be willing to tape interviews with some of the plaintiff couples. "They just had a feeling this would be a historical moment and their stories deserved to be recorded in some way other than declarations in a Supreme Court document," Szajko recalls.
Leban and Szajko were natural choices for the project, their sexual orientations aside. They’d displayed an ability to navigate courtrooms and dockets with their last documentary, Girl Trouble, an extraordinarily candid portrait of three teenagers dealing with the S.F. juvenile justice system.
Interestingly, Leban notes, two of the couples Szajko and Leban filmed at Marriage Equality USA’s behest raised unexpected historical reference points. Back in the ’70s, long before they got together, Jewelle Gomez and Diane Sabin were outspoken feminists opposed to the concept of marriage. Now they were fighting for the rights and protections afforded to married people. Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, meanwhile, pointedly cited a prior case: Gaffney’s Chinese American mother and white father were allowed to wed in California in 1952 only because the state Supreme Court had struck down the statute prohibiting interracial marriages three years earlier.
In both that case and In re Marriage Cases, enlightened judges were ahead of the times compared to the state legislature (which is filled, let’s just say, with lesser intellects). "What comes first?" Leban asks. "Do the courts rule and the culture follows or does the culture put pressure and the courts follow?" Or as Szajko puts it, "Is change driven by legal cases and through court decisions? Through legislative decisions? Or by the tenor of public dialogue and morality?"
When the state Supreme Court originally agreed to hear In re Marriage Cases, the filmmakers decided to continue to follow the couples. The Court’s momentous ruling in favor of gay marriage kicked the project to another level. "There was no turning back for us," Szajko recalls. "We were in, and there were weddings to be filmed." As well as the Prop. 8 campaign and its aftermath, and the upcoming high-stakes Supreme Court case (oral arguments begin March 8, with a decision expected by June).
"There’s been a huge groundswell around the country—court cases, legislative battles—and whatever happens here will definitely impact those other struggles in other states," Szajko says. Leban calls it "Stonewall 2.0—the different kind of activism needed to finish the civil rights struggle."
It’s one thing for Leban, Academic Director of Digital Filmmaking and Video Production at The Art Institute of California-San Francisco, and Szajko, chair of the Cinema Dept. at City College of S.F., to carve out the time to shoot Winter of Love. As they begin the editing process, money becomes even more of a factor. "Sadly, yes," is Szajko’s response when I ask if the production has been self-funded to this point.
"After Girl Trouble, we swore up and down we wouldn’t do another film without an elaborate proposal," she explains. "And then this came along and we jumped right in. I wish we’d had the time to deal with fundraising but there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Now we’re trying to catch up with ourselves so we’re writing grants like crazy."
Assuming Leban and Szajko successfully raise their budget for post, they anticipate finishing Winter of Love in time for the 2010 festival circuit beginning next January, with a fall ’10 television broadcast. In court and in the editing suite, perseverance and optimism are essential.
Notes from the Underground
Historian and critic David Thomson’s memoir of growing up in postwar England, Try to Tell the Story (Knopf) was published Feb. 1. … Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle wrote the foreword to Peter Cowie’s coffee-table tome Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star, released last week by Rizzoli Books … SF360.org writer (and critic for Variety and SF Bay Guardian) Dennis Harvey introduces Série Noire, and indulges in his unrequited love for Patrick Dewaere, at the Pacific Film Archive this Sat., Feb. 21, as part of the pulp-fiction series "One-Two Punch." … Plexifilm’s DVD of 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (which became a live event with Dean & Britta, courtesy SFFS at the Palace of Fine Arts this past month) comes out this week. … Roxie Releasing will open the deviously clever documentary Forbidden Lies April 3 in New York and the following Friday in Los Angeles. … Celebrated cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who walks the red carpet this Sunday with her Oscar-nominated documentary The Betrayal, got her first DP credit in 1988 on local filmmaker Ellen Bruno’s Samsara.
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