Reed Cowan, Director of 8: The Mormon Proposition - Interview
A movie like this is vitally important to the dialogue process.
There are certain things in this world where there is a definite understanding that it simply cannot last. When it came to discrimination at the turn of the last century it was fine to turn away people based on which country they came from, at the mid-century mark we thought there was nothing wrong with separating people based on the color of their skin, and even now there are people who think that discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation is OK. The fact that the two former facts are now seen a egregiously backward and a blemish on the face of the humanity we seem to embrace here in America is appalling when you consider that it’s still en vogue to base legislation and opposition to a normal, tax-paying segment of the population who want nothing more than to be joined in matrimony.
It’s equally appalling to think that some in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons for those needing a shorthand, would mount a political attack to overturn California’s already sanctioned same-sex, constitutional right, to marry. Again, it was already a state supreme court decision and this one proposition changed everything.
Documentary filmmaker Reed Cowan, a former Mormon raised in the faith, looked deep into this issue and came out with a film that is at once informative and infuriating. Not enough people were out there to care last November, as the tumult this threatened to cause thousands didn’t stop this from passing but this film should serve as the first step in showing people that these gay men, gay women, are people, are human beings. We will look back at these kinds of egregious political acts as the behavior of cowards but it still remains to be seen how many more years we will have to wait until we accept everyone as equal. Until then, films like this need to be made in order to show that stupidity is still alive and well in this country.
8: The Mormon Proposition is now playing. Check the official site to see if it’s appearing near you.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Please let me get right down to the film itself. I was really interested, at least reading about the movie that this movie started out as sort of a documentary on the homeless gay teen issue in Utah and that this issue took on a life of its own. What was the flash point for you to say, “You know what? I think I’m making the wrong movie.”
COWAN: I think it was the combination of “What’s the real problem here” and the real problem is bigotry spoken over the pulpit, right?
COWAN: And so we felt that really made sense and so while we were in the production of the homeless angle we became consumed with Proposition 8. So we felt sort of like an historic imperative to back-off and reassess and put our cameras where they needed to be and that was Proposition 8 and that was a wild ride. Because the discovery that happened after that was so shocking to me. So shocking.
CS: And I think the movie’s main thrust, and certainly one of the things that comes up, is that it is a movie about trying to create dialogue than it is about trying to point a finger. Looking back at the experience of making the film do you think that true dialogue can still happen with the church?
COWAN: I believe it can happen and I believe it is happening. And I know that it’s happening in people’s homes all over California, especially. I know it’s happening all over the country where people are beginning to talk about what happened because I think Mormons share a part, and there are many, and are beginning to see that this is causing a division and with good Mormons that I know of who aren’t like that. They bristle at the thought that this would cause a division. I think there is a beautiful minority who are beginning to step forward and say, “We caused pain and we have to dissect it and vow to never let this happen again.”
CS: I was really impressed with the narration of [Oscar winning writer of Milk] Dustin Lance Black. As well as Steven Greenstreet, who did the wonderful documentary Killer At Large who I actually interviewed a couple of years ago. How did these people attach themselves to the picture? Obviously, it’s great that they did, but how did the become aware of it?
COWAN: Well, first of all, Dustin Lance Black….I’m a journalist and I’m aware of a young girl in the Midwest who was doing her school project on Harvey Milk and her teachers would not allow her to bring that to class and, of course, that made the news. So, I contacted him on his Facebook page and asked if he would have any interest in talking to this girl because I think she would really be bolstered by you talking to her and he responded and out of that grew a friendship and he began to see the research and work I was doing on this film and when the time was right I asked him if he would participate and he interrupted filming on What’s Wrong With Virginia, he’s almost wrapped with it now, he interrupted production to narrate this film. So, that’s how that happened.
Steven Greenstreet came on the scene for me about halfway through my process. I had found online that he did a piece for AmericanNewsProject called Proposition 8 – Did Mormons Go Too Far? I contacted him and I purchased his footage, I purchased some of his documentation, and after we got into Sundance it was abundantly clear that we needed all hands on deck. So I brought Steven on as a producer and editor of the project and then by virtue of the hours he put into the film in the last few months of production I said I would give him co-director credit. So that was all I could do and that’s how it all evolved. It’s how all those relationships evolved and those relationships are indicative of many that came together to make this film. So many people all over the country.
CS: And I think that one of the overriding things, at least I was thinking looking at my notes, was why did the church see something in California as an issue that they really wanted to try to get behind?
COWAN: Of course we know that as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. And I think Mormons thought, “Oh God. Oh Heavenly Father. If gay marriage happens in California, it’s going to happen all over.” The Mormons in their call, as you saw in the movie said indeed we are compelled by our faith to speak out and I think that really is at the root of it all.
The Mormons think that the only way to achieve the highest level in heaven is to be baptized a Mormon, to be married man to woman in the Mormon temple, to progress to godhood on your own planet where men can marry multiple wives and make many multitudes of babies and inhabit their own planet and repeat the cycle. Mormons teach that man is what God once was and God is what man may become. And so the doctrine is “Look, man to woman, man to multiple woman, babies and gay people don’t fit into that picture.” I truly think that Mormons, I don’t think, I know from my own training that Mormons see gay people as an interruption in the grand scheme of heaven. And that has to be corrected or extinguished.
CS: And you’re no longer a Mormon, correct?
COWAN: I left the Mormon Church years ago. Ironically, not over this issue but I left the Mormon Church after my Mormon mission because I served the church in a country where there is a beautiful proud African American population and I could never get a straight answer from any of them as to why the Church I was knocking doors for didn’t allow full participation from African Americans until 1978. And finally if I couldn’t get an adequate explanation, I can’t put my name on it and I won’t.
CS: There was a mother couldn’t witness her own child being married in a temple here across town because she, herself, was not Mormon. The boy went to the process of being one but she had to actually wait for them to leave the temple and celebrate outside. It seems like such a harsh thing to have happened. Is this just a religion that is like like any other religions or is there something more deeply seeded that it makes you want to come back and say, “What is really going on in that church?”
COWAN: As to that Mormons believe that the ceremony that literally binds and seals a husband to a wife for time and eternity is one of the most sacred ceremonies that is performed in their tradition. And only those who are Mormon who pay 10% of their income to the Mormon Church, who keep the moral code, who keep the physical code or not drinking, smoking, drugs, coffee, tea, only those who keep the highest strictest moral codes, financial codes, can go into the temple to witness that.
My own grandmother who passed away a year and a half ago was an angel. Truly, one of the finest people I have ever known in my life and was not a Mormon and had to sit out at my sisters wedding. And what I found ironic was that was the last time I went into a temple because I had to leave my Grandma parked on the curb to go watch my sister get married. And all the while my aunts and uncles could go up and I looked around the room and saw in their marriages that perhaps there were some dishonest business practices going on in their lives but they were allowed to go in and witness this marriage. And my own Grandma who lived a simple, beautiful, pure life was not. And that is a sting for most people but people have to understand from the outside that Mormons believe they are the one and only true religion on the face of the earth that you cannot go to the highest level of heaven unless you are baptized Mormon and marry in the Mormon Temple.
And, there are strict hurdles to go over in order to achieve all those benchmarks in Mormon life and their objective is to convert everyone whether they are alive or dead. You don’t get into a temple easily and that’s just how it is.
CS: In the movie as well, at what point, again it started out as a project on the homeless gay teen population in Utah, at one point did you see that activism involves more than just holding a sign or saying something out loud, that it actually involves getting involved and doing things?
COWAN: Well, as a former Mormon who went through those very sacred, secret temple ceremonies, I know what the secret handshakes are and I know what the language is and in the Temple you make promises, the Mormons call them covenants to God, upon which you entire, eternal salvation and the salvation of your children is based. And they use covenant language. And in the film we show, which is the answer to your question, I know that it was big. It was bigger than just a call to arms and it was a holy war and that when Mormons use that sacred language of the Mormon Temple. Means and time.
In the Mormon Temple you covenant to dedicate your means and time to the church. So when Mormons heard the call from their leadership in Salt Lake – use those trigger words, it turned simple activism or advocacy into a holy war against gay people. Because everything is out the window at that point their own adherence to their own covenant, to their own promise is in that temple were on the line. And I would imagine many Mormons went home and thought in the privacy of their bedrooms said to their wives and husbands, “My gosh, they used the words means and time and we made these covenants and not only should get involved, but we must if we value the salvation of our entire family.”
Serious, serious stuff to Mormons.
CS: And at what point do you see an end game from the stance that 50 years ago we’d be talking about the white and black population – the issues of racism now that we look back on it now and say, “Oh my God, there was a drinking fountain that said for Whites Only, for Blacks Only…” Do you have it in your head about what has to happen before we look at this and go, “What were we wasting our lives doing?”
COWAN: I believe in a population that can get “when we know better, we can do better.” I always talk about he civil rights struggle and how at one point people had televisions and on the television they saw the police use night sticks on African American brothers and sisters and they saw the fire cannons and saw the fire hoses turned on these people and saw how inhumane that was. And they saw the beam that bigotry leveled on people and their families and I really think that’s why our film is important.
I do believe the arc of history bends towards justice and I do believe that people will see what happened and they will choose better. I really believe that. And I was on the radio recently with a man from California, a very successful man from California who happens to be an active Mormon and he said no longer are Mormons appealing to educated people, we’re appealing to uneducated people land people and people of different segments of the population, we’re not appealing to the young people anymore. To me, eventually the Mormons are going to have to see that if they are going to survive by way of numbers, they are going to have to be a more inclusive organization and they are going to have to teach their people to be more inclusive with gay people.
CS: Well, Reed, I know our time is short and I have just one more question to ask you and that is that now that this is done and you’ve seen the response its gotten, where are you emotionally, mentally, about moving forward in your own personal space? Are you hopeful for what’s around the corner? I realize this is a big blow to everyone when this was defeated but how are you going forward now that you made this film?
COWAN: I adopted two little boys a year ago on Thursday and my personal space is defined by them and I am as motivated and as hopeful as you can ever be when you look into the eyes of two little twin boys who deserve to be raised in a relationship where their parents enjoy the full benefits and protections, rights, privileges, blessings, of full marriage equality. I am very hopeful and I am very determined and very passionate that before I draw my last breath my children will be able to say that the family they were raised in was seen as important and as crucial to society as their peers and that’s where my hope lies.
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