Last year, as a legal fight was brewing that would change the culture of America, Eddie Rosenstein, a 1981 grad of Squirrel Hill’s Taylor Allderdice High School, spent months training his camera on Evan Wolfson (Allderdice, Class of ‘74).
A family friend of Rosenstein’s, Wolfson is the author of “Gay People’s Right to Marry” and, for his longtime advocacy, has become known as “The Godfather of Gay Marriage.”
Rosenstein’s documentary, “Freedom to Marry,” will open this year’s Three Rivers Film Festival on Nov. 16.
Something of a newlywed in the documentary world, “Freedom to Marry” is having a splashy honeymoon. It has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, highlighted by a best documentary feature win at the Savannah Film Festival, an international showing at the Seoul Pride Festival and a Manhattan screening Nov. 12 at DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival.
Rosenstein’s camera also focuses on other key figures, notably civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, also known as “The Godmother of Gay Marriage.”
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 split that the Constitution protects same-sex marriages. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the historic decision.
Those who had not followed the case might assume the nine justices suddenly decided to debate same-sex marriage, which would be like witnessing the final 100 yards of a marathon and assuming the race was a sprint.
As Rosenstein’s film shows, the ruling was the result of a methodical, often-painful battle over decades — with Wolfson involved at nearly every step of the arduous march.
The movie title echoes the Freedom to Marry group that Wolfson founded, which helped push gay marriage to the Supreme Court. Though Wolfson started his career as an attorney, and has fought for gay marriage at the state level, the Harvard Law School graduate was not on the Supreme Court legal team. Not officially, at least.
In a conference call (Rosenstein was in New York, Wolfson in D.C.), the two described Wolfson’s role in the epic court battle.
“My involvement with the work has always been more than just the litigation,” Wolfson says. “I got involved with it when I was a law student, and my thesis back in 1983 was that (gays) should have the freedom to marry — and, relatedly, we should fight for the freedom to marry.”
“As the film shows,” Rosenstein says, “he was a student of history all the way back to Allderdice — he was secretary general of the Student United Nations. And, as a lawyer, he won some of earliest legal battles (for gay marriage). Then he realized there’s a lot of good attorneys, someone had to lead the public fight.”
The documentary follows Wolfson on a drive through his old Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where Wolfson says he felt “supported and loved.” Wolfson’s parents are interviewed, as well as Rosenstein’s mother, who recalls a precocious Wolfson reading the New York Times at 4. “Freedom to Marry” tells the story of Wolfson going off to the Peace Corps, and announcing to his family he was gay when he returned.
Though “Freedom to Marry” eavesdrops on some calm, visually static meetings, it also has tension and high-volume drama. In Texas, same-sex marriage supporters are aggressively challenged by insult-hurling defenders of the “marriage is one man, one woman” standpoint.
Nervous anticipation builds as rallies and meetings on both sides are shown, in the days before the Supreme Court would hear oral arguments. The demonstrator battle shifts from Texas to Washington, D.C., outside the Supreme Court.
Rosenstein’s camera catches Bonauto as she makes her way to the courthouse — to chants of “Go, Mary, Go!” Cameras were not allowed inside the court, so the filmmaker settles on capturing the post-game angst of attorneys and organizers. “I was a little unnerved by the whole process,” the charmingly humble Bonauto says.
Wolfson is shown rallying his Freedom to Marry troops, preparing for public responses to either decision the court will make.
As a Daily Beast reviewer noted, “Despite the fact that viewers of the film will know how it ends, there is still a palpable feeling of suspense that takes hold as the final Supreme Court decision approaches.”
The emotional apex comes when Wolfson gets an alert on his phone, and reads it to his team: “The Supreme Court ends same-sex marriage bans nationwide.”
After the cheers of the room die down, Wolfson checks his watch and cracks, “That only took 32 years.”
Strong feedback at festivals helped Rosenstein land a deal with Argot Pictures, which will launch a “Freedom to Marry” theatrical release in March.
Here in Pittsburgh, Barbara and Yale Rosenstein and Dr. Jerry and Joan Wolfson — the parents of the filmmaker and main character — are planning to attend the Nov. 16 screening at the August Wilson Center together.
“What I love,” Eddie Rosenstein says, “is a guy from Squirrel Hill led this fight and figured out the strategy to win this thing.”
“What I love,” Evan Wolfson counters, “is Eddie showed that — but also showed how many people were involved in this fight.”
“Freedom to Marry” will open the annual Three Rivers Film Festival at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at the August Wilson Center, Downtown. Admission is $30, $25 in advance; students, $20, $15 in advance. Details: 412-426-3456 or filmpittsburgh.org