Left at the Altar; Jim de Sève’s “Tying the Knot” Shows the Human Face of the Gay Marriage Debate
by Wendy Mitchell
The gay marriage debate has been dominating the headlines in recent months; but this issue has also been dominating ordinary people’s lives for years. And it’s those people who take center stage in Jim de Sève‘s documentary “Tying the Knot,” which makes the case for equal marriage rights by showing the personal stories of gay couples struggling for the same rights afforded to straight couples. No matter what side of the fence you fall on, chances are you will be touched by the stories of Mickie Mashburn, a Florida police officer whose partner Lois Marrero, also a cop, was killed in the line of duty. Despite their 10-plus year relationship, Mickie was denied Lois’ pension and appealed the decision.
Perhaps even more surprising is the tale of Sam, an elderly Oklahoma rancher whose partner Earl passes away, and Sam then has to fight to save the ranch where they lived, worked, and raised children together for more than 20 years.
The film, three years in the making, puts the debate in a historical context with some powerful footage of activists storming the Manhattan marriage bureau way back in 1971; historian EJ Graff also fascinatingly details the history of marriage as an institution. “Tying the Knot” also covers some recent developments, and provides an international look at gay marriages in the Netherlands and Canada.
Brooklyn-based filmmaker de Sève premiered his first feature-length documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival; it was soon acquired by Roadside Attractions and has since picked up awards at festivals including Frameline and Montreal World. indieWIRE contributor Wendy Mitchell recently talked with de Sève about “Tying the Knot”; Roadside Attractions opens the film today in eight cities; it will roll out further in coming weeks.
indieWIRE: What motivated you to tackle the topic of gay marriage?
Jim de Sève: The genesis for it is that my partner, Kian (who is of Chinese ancestry and from Indonesia) and I were a bi-national couple, so it started as a personal investigation — why are some people allowed to have their foreign partner stay in the country while others are not? That started opening my mind about what marriage is about. That was my initial jumping off point. This was about four years ago.
I initially did a 20-minute short about Kian and myself, our relationship, and then we went to Holland, where they had just implemented gay marriage, and it had been passed legislatively and supported by 85 percent of the population. To hear people talking about their husbands and wives, and knowing they actually meant it, was actually like seeing the ghost of Christmas future. It was working and supported by the population — that was eye-opening and also an inspiration for me.
iW: Since you started this film, gay marriage has really come into the public consciousness… was that intimidating that it became such a hot issue? Did you originally intend this for a wider audience?
de Sève: I’m not sure what my initial idea was of the audience. I think I was coming from this point of view that a lot of people have, which is: why are we imitating the straight institutions? The gay community can create this gay bubble, our own reality. So the investigation and the understanding of the issue very much mirrors my own coming to terms with the idea of Marriage. That’s why it is kind of a bizarre film in a way, it’s laid out in this crazy structure — it meanders, it’s kind of like the inner workings of my brain. I think once I realized the potential to change people’s minds with the film, that’s when I really started digging in — with all this massive amount of information, how can I make it something to change people’s minds or open their eyes? It’s a democracy we live in, and people need to be informed about the issues.
iW: Did you ever try to do a more linear structure?
de Sève: With the stories, I wanted them to have little question marks — what’s going to happen at the hearing? Did they vote for this? We were trying to build cliffhangers. Yet it does go chronologically from the protests in 1971 to the point when the first marriage license is issued in Massachusetts this year. And then we return to the beach wedding, because that’s what it’s really all about, the couple… We’re not trying to be a compendium of what’s happening now.
iW: Why did you choose these particular couples in the film?
de Sève: The whole idea of losing somebody and then being screwed over, that really caught my attention.
iW: How did you find them?
de Sève: Micki’s case I read about in The Advocate and Sam’s case I heard about through Paul Cates, who is the gay and lesbian liaison for the ACLU. Sam’s story presented a way to reach out to people — he is the great American farmer in Oklahoma. People may have problems if someone like Carson [Kressley] from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” gets married, but it’s a little bit different when it’s this Oklahoma farmer. I wanted to show this to the legislator in Oklahoma who’s against gay marriage, and be able to say, “Well, look at this guy Sam, he’s one of yours.”
iW: You’re working with a lot of gay groups to get the word out — what’s your ideal audience for this film?
de Sève: I think we have to do what they did with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — they got the Greeks out to see it and they created waves. So we’ll get the gays out first. We’ve got a team of six dedicated outreach people. We were very inspired by Sandi Dubowski [the director of “Trembling Before G-d”] who’s given us a lot of outreach pointers.
iW: For people who hear this is a “gay marriage” film, what will they be surprised to see?
de Sève: It’s not one of those “PBS in June” films — nice films about gay couples planning their wedding. I’m scared people will think it’s like Bravo‘s “Gay Weddings.” I think they’ll be surprised by the political content. And surprised that we have this footage from 1971, that people were debating this issue back then. And people will just be surprised about what can happen to people’s lives, how they can unravel. Most people come of the film saying, “Wow, I never thought of marriage from this point of view, you opened my eyes.”
iW: Obviously the film is in support of gay marriage rights.
de Sève: Unapologetically.
iW: Are you catching flack for not showing the other point of view?
de Sève: In the film, there are a group of twentysomethings in Holland who say that marriage is bullshit. I got a lot of slack from the marriage people for putting that in there. But that’s a point of view that a lot of people — gay and straight — have, that marriage is bullshit. And that’s fine, if people don’t want to get married, they don’t have to. But if people want marriage to be a part of their lives, it’s a simple question of equality. If you pay your taxes then you should get all the civil rights afforded to other couples.
There’s also this notion that if you let two men or two women marry, then that’s a marriage of equals. When you do that, you make it better for everyone. You create an equalization of the genders. Think of the Promise Keeper Southern Baptist man who tells his wife, “Obey my instructions.” Well, him being a husband then being two men being husbands, that can take away his power of being the patriarch.
iW: What are your predictions for gay marriage in this country?
de Sève: We don’t talk about gay marriage, we talk about marriage. We want the inclusion of all people in this institution. I think it’s going to be a long, bloody, drawn-out pain in the ass cultural war. And it has begun. We’ll see what happens before next June for our DVD extras! I think it’s very exciting. We’re in one of those “darkness before the dawn” scenarios. It’ll happen, but it’s going to take a Supreme Court decision. It’ll take people doing the hard activist work that we need to make sure that these rights are granted to gay and lesbian couples. It’ll just take time, working and telling stories.