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iW INSIDER | Eugene Hernandez: The Battle for Marriage Equality and the Intersection with Indie Film

iW INSIDER | Eugene Hernandez: The Battle for Marriage Equality and the Intersection with Indie Film

For a full week now, many friends, colleagues and co-workers have asked me if and when I’d write more personally about the intensifying fight for marriage equality and its intersection with the indie film community. Last week brought calls for a Sundance Film Festival boycott and then the focus shifted slightly to Film Independent and its Los Angeles Film Festival. Folks are clearly at odds over how to deal with the two festivals, arguing that each has some link to the Mormon church, which aggressively funneled some $20 million into the campaign to defeat Prop 8. But, the situation isn’t black and white. Like most issues, it is complicated. There are no simple solutions and even at the indieWIRE office we’ve had passionate debates on the matter. It goes without saying that I don’t speak for any of my colleagues here.

Among the many recent conversations, this weekend I had a private talk with LA Film Fest director Rich Raddon, a Morman member of the film community who was drawn into the spotlight late last week after it was revealed that he donated $1500 to the campaign in support of California Prop 8. Rich is a longtime friend within the film community and I agreed to speak with him off the record, so I can’t detail the substance of our conversation. However, I can relate that he is in the midst of a painful and emotional process as his personal and professional worlds collide rather publicly.

During our talk, I expressed my own disgust over the tactics of his church and reiterated how offensive the campaign against equality is to so many people, especially within the film community. Rich Raddon is already hearing this first hand from many people around him, so I also listened carefully as he expressed his own hope that the goals of both sides can be achieved peacefully and harmoniously going forward.

It’s certainly not easy navigating the complexities of a friend’s personal and political views, particularly when they seem so at odds with our own, but back when I was a student at UCLA, I took a seminal class entitled “Conflict to Collaboration.” The campus ombudsman instilled in me the enduring phrase, “Be hard on the issues and soft on the people,” so while I am certainly not trying to speak for Rich Raddon here, I simply didn’t feel it was approprite for indieWIRE to write about his situation until I could talk with him directly. Rich will ultimately have to speak for himself if and when the time is right.

The role of the Morman church in the campaign to restrict marriage has left many people hurt and upset. “Personally I’m offended that someone from an organization that should be about understanding and multicultural experiences would support such a measure,” the head of another leading fesitval told me on Friday, adding later, “I do respect the fact he has a right to his views. The difficulty remains with his position at Film Independent and how his now public views will affect his ability to lead.”

While respecting Rich’s rights to his beliefs, my colleague Brian Brooks reiterated to me in numerous conversations, “we have a right to react to his opinion,” echoing the views of numerous people I spoke with. Others I talked with recently were even more critical and upset by the news of Raddon’s donation and many are similarly concerned that the Sundance Film Festival does business with entities lead by individuals who donated to support Prop 8. The pain won’t go away anytime soon, but personally speaking I am optimistic that anger is giving way to a wave of activism and hope around the issue that will lead to change. At the same time, it’s igniting a debate about how far the film community should go in rooting out and boycotting political adversaries.

“It’s fucked up when the left starts acting like the right,” leading indie producer Christine Vachon emphatically warned on Friday night. I called Christine after reading a Facebook status update in which she wrote, “I wish Rich Raddon did not support prop 8 — but he IS entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to put his money where his mouth is.”

“Where do you draw the line?” Vachon asked, decrying a “witch hunt” and rhetorically wondering whether all employees would be vetted for their political beliefs. An out lesbian who has produced many of the most important queer films, Vachon added that, in the fight for marriage equality, the current focus on the Mormon church is wrong headed, equating it with the way conservatives have demonized liberals. On Saturday she planned to join many other New Yorkers at the City Hall protest for marriage equality. I saw many film friends and colleagues at Saturday’s demonstration, which included remarks from out “Welcome to the Dollhouse” star (and NewFest board member) Heather Matarazzo.

Rich’s employer, Film Independent, and its board, are standing by their festival director, even as he works to navigate his own relationships within the organization and in the broader film community. Emphasizing that it is a “champion of diversity,” FIND issued a statement late Friday saying that the organization is, “supporting the civil rights of all individuals.” Continuing the statement added, “At the same time, our organization does not police the personal, religious, or political choices of any employee, member, or filmmaker.”

Another not-for-profit film organization, Sundance Institute, was forced to address critics last week, finding a lot of support from within the community. In the wake of the call for a boycott of its Utah-based festival, Sundance also emphasized its diversity, citing the “diverse range of independent voices” it brings together at the festival and emphasizing its committment to creating “a dialogue around critical issues.”

As with the Raddon situation, I felt we couldn’t cover the topic without insight from Sundance’s out programmer, John Cooper. He reiterated to me that the festival’s location, “puts us in the heart of America which makes our mission just that much more important.”

“Through the last 25 years this irony has not been lost on me,” Cooper told me, “Even though I usually don’t talk about it in these terms.”

How fitting that at this year’s festival, filmmakers and industry alike looked back at the event’s vital role as curator of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, an important reminder of the festival’s legacy. A boycott of Sundance would only close off an opportunity for a rich exploration of many issues during the very week that Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.

The conversation will surely continue. What do you think?

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