Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Ryan White and Ben Cotner.
2008 was a momentous year for America. Barack Obama became the first black President, and California legalised same sex marriage. Some 18000 couples tied the knot. A few months later a coalition of conservatives were arguing that marriage should only be recognised between a man and a woman, and they were the driving force behind Proposition 8, a bill that effectively outlawed same sex marriages. This set the scene for an almighty legal stoush to overturn Proposition 8. A team of legal experts argued that this was in violation of the rights afforded people under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.
The resultant court case to overturn Proposition 8 made strange bedfellows of a pair of former political foes who had been on opposite sides during the hearing to determine the outcome of the Florida recount during the 2000 US Presidential campaign. Ted Olsen was a staunch Republican and former Attorney General under the Bush administration and was a conservative lawyer who had secured the Bush triumph in that controversial decision. David Boise had represented Al Gore in that case.
But the pair from opposite ends of the political spectrum respected each other’s abilities and they willingly teamed up to take the lawsuit on marriage equality all the way to the US Supreme Court. At first many within the GLBT community were suspicious of Olsen’s involvement, while conservatives themselves felt that he had turned his back on traditional values.
The GLBT community rallied behind the fight to overturn the ban on gay marriages. One of the key figures in the law suit was filmmaker Rob Reiner (of Stand By Me fame, etc), who was also a board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. They found two gay couples who were wholesome enough and stable enough to become the acceptable public face of the fight for marriage equality – Jeff Zarillo and his long time partner Paul Katani, and Kristin Perry and her partner Sandra Stier, who had four children from previous marriages.
We are made privy to strategy meetings as the lawyers prepare the case, we watch them take depositions and prepare their key witnesses and guide their main plaintiffs through the complex legal process with its series of appeals. The main arguments against same sex marriage from the fundamentalist Christian movement seem to be based on misinformation, ignorance and bias and prejudice, and the team of Olsen and Boise soon make short work of these flawed and baseless claims in the courtroom. Because cameras were not permitted into the courtroom to record this historic case, we get a few dry readings from the actual transcripts to give us the flavour of the hearings.
Filmmakers Ryan White and Ben Cotner spent five years working on The Case Against 8, following the epic legal battle from the beginning through to the final court victory. White and Cotner were granted unprecedented access to both the legal team and the two gay couples at the forefront of the legal case, and had some 600 hours of footage to draw upon. The result is a deeply personal and moving exploration of the controversial issue of same sex marriage that became a landmark court case in the US, but it is also a fascinating character study. We get some insights into the lives of the two gay couples, and why they felt this struggle was so important.
But despite the eventual triumph in the courts and the historic decision that permitted same sex couples to marry, a footnote tells us that same sex marriages are still illegal in 33 states of the US. The Case Against 8 is a fascinating and powerful documentary that was originally made for the HBO network, which is why it lacks a more cinematic quality. The main fault with this documentary is that it lacks objectivity and doesn’t really offer much of a balanced view of the complicated and complex issue.
Nonetheless, this is something of an emotional rollercoaster, and its core themes, its examination of a blatant injustice, and a quartet of sympathetic subjects will move people to tears of both anger and frustration. And hopefully it will also be persuasive enough to change people’s minds about this important topic of marriage equality.