Champions of Freedom
By AMY KATZ
Of The Mendocino Beacon
Thursday, June 10, 2004
"Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how.
The moment you know how,
you begin to die a little.
The artist never entirely knows.
We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."
Agnes De Mille
As plein air painters, Albion residents Carmen Goodyear and Laurie York have to be attuned to nature's rhythm as they paint outdoors attempting to represent natural light and air. They know that when the conditions are right you have to jump on them.
"If you don't go out there early in the morning on the first sunny day, the chances are the fog's going to come in on the third day and you won't finish your painting. So you just have to get out there and do it because everything is changing constantly," York explained.
Their keen awareness and ability to mobilize at a moment's notice inadvertently prepared the two women for the transition to documentary film-making and their most recent and essential film, FREEDOM TO MARRY.
The artists agree that they might have lost the opportunity to not only get married, but to capture moments which would germinate into a full-fledged film had they not followed their instincts and gone to San Francisco on that second day Feb. 13. They actually thought it likely that an injunction would be filed and they wanted to be in San Francisco for as long as the marriages were being performed.
York said if they had sat and thought, "You know, we don't have the best cameras, and we never really interviewed anybody and we're like small potatoes in the big city" ... "and if we'd have let ourselves think about the hundreds of reasons that we shouldn't have gone down there, then we wouldn't have made it. But we didn't think. We just leaped."
Lack of film making experience may have led, in part, to their success.
"People weren't intimidated by big boom mikes and beta cams. All we had was our small Sony DVD camera," York said, "and I think it seemed like we were making a small, home movie. They were more relaxed and opened up to us. I think some of the couples [that were filmed] were surprised that it was actually made into a film."
Responses to FREEDOM TO MARRY, which they previewed at the Matheson Performing Arts Center to a standing room only audience on May 7, proved their assumptions to be right on. The common reaction from the crowd was how sincere the filmed interviews were; how open and unselfconscious the participants were, drawing in the viewer and creating a genuine connection between film and observer.
The seed for the idea of a film on same-sex marriages was planted, however, when they filmed their friends' Gordie and Astrid's commitment ceremony at the Botanical Gardens last October. The week prior they had filmed a wedding for a heterosexual couple. While editing the straight couple's footage beside Gordie and Astrid's, they began wondering why one was legal and the other not.
"Then it started getting to us," York said. "We thought it was awful that so much love could be denied, and that's when we started plugging in."
Goodyear said she always felt Astrid and Gordie's ceremony to be the heart of the film because of the beauty and love that overflowed at the event.
The next question was who to interview and how to find them. Astrid and Gordie sent them to another couple. The artists attended a rally led by Molly and Davina, both driving forces in the documentary and in same-sex rights activism. The artists talked with them about doing an interview for the film. One couple down.
York and Goodyear were married at San Francisco's City Hall on Feb. 13, the second day marriages were being performed. Over a thousand people were there and the couples in front and behind them were to become four more interviewees for the film.
"We had all this camera equipment with us because we were afraid it would get stolen if we left it in the car," York said. "So every time the line would move we had to pick up all this stuff and Don and David, who were ahead of us, and Carla and Diana just behind us, helped lug everything. They were so nice."
The artists were in line for about five hours and they said the feeling they got from the place was incredible.
"The room was tingling," York said. "We walked up the stairs of City Hall and there were lots of protesters. Walking through that huge crowd filled with hatred and ill-will into this rotunda of love was just amazing. I had my camera and Carmen looked at me and I was shaking. I felt like I was walking into history. It was unforgettable, overwhelming."
Goodyear added, "So often something like that would be filled with hatred, anger and confrontation but this was the history of love. The people who came that weekend were people who'd been waiting for this [same-sex marriages] to happen for 20 years; long-term, committed couples."
Not only were the couples filled with joy, but so were the City Hall employees who had been following the issue for over seven years. "The employees were all on a first name basis with many of the couples," York said. "They were warm to the event because they had tracked the struggle for years and had to turn couples away over and over, and it broke their hearts, too. Mabel Tang, the assessor, was so behind the whole thing. Afterwards she sent us, and all couples that got married, a beautiful card. How lucky can you get?"
A clip from the documentary shows Davina and Molly going for a marriage license at San Francisco's City Hall last year, as they did every year on Feb. 12. The clerk kindly declined their request, as each year in the past. We then see them each grab one of the two men behind them and ask, "If I marry him a total stranger it is legal?" The clerk sheepishly nods yes.
Though a great deal of anger and frustration surround this current civil rights movement, Goodyear and York made a conscious choice to leave politics by the wayside and focus on the humanity of the couples involved; the compassion, love and devotion that they share with one another. The artists felt if they could offer anything to the movement a human face would be it.
"We didn't want to get into the day to day upheavals of the political scene," Goodyear said. "Those images can be seen on tv everyday. But what you can't see are the couples' lives and how normal they are."
One family, which subsequently became part of the film, brought that to Goodyear and York's attention at the San Francisco rally where they met Davina and Molly. Gretchen, one of two mothers and parent to two young girls, said, "The everyday families deserve equal attention."
In the film her younger daughter carries a sign that reads, "Mr. President, why do you hate my family?"
What is often highlighted in the news, York finds, are the most sensational people and events. Those images become what people tend to conjure up when they think of gay people, she said.
"But we're a broad population, all different, just like straight people, just as diverse as any other culture," York said.
Because of the ordinariness of the subject love and humanity the artists feared the film would be boring. Yet, having no choice but to follow their instincts they went ahead. They thought, "We don't find it boring, we like these people and we think they have something to say."
They were also concerned that the film might be sappy because "it's extremely positive, which some people think is not an intellectual approach, and it's very emotional," said York. They did not concern themselves though with interviewing opponents of gay marriage for they knew that would be filmed elsewhere and it has, they said. A film called "Tying the Knot," made by a male couple from New York, is more about the struggle and fight of gay marriage, York said. The two films will be shown side by side at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on June 19.
"It's interesting that the two films come from such different places and each contributes in a different way, but it all tells one story," York said.
The two women worked every waking hour on the film, they said, at times pushing themselves beyond healthy limits. But they were compelled to jump on this unique moment in time.
"We've been a very polite population for a long time," York said. "Polite enough to remain invisible. This is not just about gay marriage. This is about homophobia and breaking through all the layers that have kept us in that silent place for so long. It's not just about married couples, it's about choice. And that it is not society's choice to eliminate us."
The couple, incidentally, never planned on the move into film-making. They just started making little, fun films, as they affectionately called them. The first was "Hummingbird Rescue." A hummingbird flew into York's tea house and she said, "I think this is a movie!" So Goodyear ran over with the camera and the film basically showed the two women trying to revive and feed sugar water to a hummingbird that had gone too long without nutrition. Finally the bird gathered its strength, flew off and that was the end of the movie. "It was a short," York said smiling.
After that the artists filmed "Punky's Puppies," which York, chuckling, said was a smash hit.
Reflecting on the recent preview showing in Mendocino of FREEDOM TO MARRY, the women said it was an incredible evening for them. Their instincts were validated and they were able to contribute to a benevolent and historical cause.
"Maybe when you are in a path of energy that is destined to unfold," York concluded, "there is a momentum and force that goes behind you and makes it easier. The work could have taken longer but things just fell into place."
FREEDOM TO MARRY will be shown again at the Matheson Performing Arts Center on Friday, July 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Amy Katz is a writer for the Mendocino Beacon and Fort Bragg Advocate News