Reed Cowan couldn’t have hoped for better timing for Washington screenings of his new movie, 8: The Mormon Proposition, which opens Friday at AFI Theatre in Silver Spring. Although the media frenzy surrounding DC’s landmark legalization of same-sex marriage in March has died down, in a California courtroom today, US District Judge Vaughn Walker is hearing closing arguments in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8. When the ballot measure—which limited California’s recognition of marriage to unions between men and women—passed in 2008, activists were stunned; opinion polls had suggested that a solid majority of voters were against it. Cowan’s movie shows the effect of the Mormon church’s campaigning and reveals in fascinating detail the amount of money, time, and resources it invested to get Prop 8 passed.
Cowan, a documentary maker and news anchor, and his codirector Steven Greenstreet, a video journalist for the State Department in Washington, were both raised Mormon, so they have a deep understanding of the church’s attitude toward homosexuality, though they strive to be reporters, rather than editorialists. “We wanted to stay as balanced and objective as we could,” says Greenstreet. “And we went out of our way trying to interview leaders of the Mormon church. We got turned down at every attempt.” Before the movie was even edited, the church put out a statement declaring it to be biased and untruthful. “We know that within the church they’re telling their members not to go see it,” Greenstreet says. “But I want Mormons to see this film, because that’s where the dialogue is going to happen.”
It may not be entirely objective, but 8 is a passionate and thorough investigation of how fiercely the Mormon church and its members worked to pass the ballot. Church elders issued directives urging families to donate funds, even specifying the amount they should be able to afford. One California family with four children sent a check for $50,000, emptying out the kids’ college fund. Door-to-door campaigners were urged to dress casually so they wouldn’t immediately appear to be members of the church. Although Mormons make up only two percent of California’s population, they contributed more than 70 percent of the funds to the campaign. And yet the church—well aware of the fact that as a tax-exempt institution it can’t actively become involved in a political process—initially declared that it had invested only $2,000 toward the Yes on 8 campaign. The movie estimates that the total figure is easily in the millions.
Although the movie can be schlocky in parts (depictions of the Mormon understanding of heaven show fluffy clouds and people in white robes), its strength lies in humanizing the people who lost their rights to Prop 8. A couple, Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, both raised Mormon, describe their joy on their wedding day and how it felt to be deprived of that joy by their own families. The movie also interviews a man who was identified by the church as gay while attending Brigham Young University, and it shows the torture he was put through while the church attempted to “convert” him (without going into too much detail, electrodes feature heavily). Cowan also shows a couple in Utah who took comfort in their son’s suicide, believing him to be finally free from temptation. He interviews teenagers in Utah who live in filthy, abandoned houses because their families have disowned them.
Greenstreet’s family remains supportive of his efforts in making the movie, although Cowan is estranged from his. “A lot of people wonder if this is an anti-Mormon film or an anti-religion film,” Greenstreet says. “It really isn’t. It’s about people and the human struggle, and it’s really about love. I hope that’s the message that everybody can relate to.”