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Island filmmakers capture tragic story — and help change the world
When two Island filmmakers set out to make a documentary about marriage equality, they had no idea their project would elevate the issue nationwide — casting a spotlight on the powerful stories of couples whose unions were not recognized because of laws that favor heterosexuals.
But even before the documentary “For My Wife” has premiered, it has amplified the call for equal rights for homosexual couples by chronicling the poignant histories of a few determined individuals.
Director David Rothmiller and producer LD Thompson — partners in business and in life — were moved by one tragic story in particular. In December 2006, Seattle woman Charlene Strong was turned away from the bedside of her dying partner because the pair were not legally married.
Rothmiller and Thompson have collaborated on projects as diverse as “Beyond the Line,” an edgy talk show that aired in Canada for years, and “Seven Veils,” a documentary still in the works that delves into the lives of seven Muslim women. Their work on other topical social issues, however, didn’t prepare the creative pair for the consuming and sometimes emotional project of filming Strong’s ascendance as an activist.
Traveling the nation, Strong has spoken out about her belief that same-sex couples should be recognized in the same way as married heterosexuals, so that others may not experience the same hardships she endured. And for more than a year, Rothmiller and Thompson were on hand to preserve the moments on film.
As the professionals’ documentation of Strong continued, the media took note, paying greater attention to the grieving but opinionated woman because she had a camera crew in tow.
It became, Rothmiller said, “a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we covered her, the more press we got.”
The public will have a chance to see the documentary in its world premiere at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19 at Cinerama Theatre. “For My Wife,” a featured film in the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, has moved those who’ve already seen it to tears.
Rothmiller said he plans to show the film at Vashon Theatre in a few months.
Strong fell victim to the law in Washington state two years ago when her partner Kate Fleming drowned in the basement of the couple’s home in Seattle’s Madison Park neighborhood.
Torrential rains had filled the sound studio where Fleming, the voice of 200 audiobooks, was attempting
to save recording equipment
as she was overcome by rainwater inside her house. Though medical personnel
revived Fleming on the way to the hospital, at Harborview Medical Center her brain functions were lost.
Strong was barred access to Fleming’s room. It wasn’t until Fleming’s sister gave permission by telephone that Strong was able to share her final moments with her partner of 10 years.
“In our minds, we always thought we were married; we lived our lives as though we were married,” Strong said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have the proper documentation.”
Washington, like most states, had little legal protection for same-sex couples in 2006. Partners couldn’t visit each other in the hospital without explicit permission, inherit property from each other without a will present or have the health insurance policy of one partner extend to the other.
Strong lived up to her name in the months that followed. She stood before the Washington House and Senate a month after Fleming’s passing, testifying that domestic partners should be given “not special, but equal, treatment.”
“I think Charlene coming to tell her story in January 2007 had significant impact in opening the hearts and minds of my fellow legislators,” said Sen. Joe McDermott, an openly gay legislator and one of those who introduced the bill to the House of Representatives that created a Domestic Partnership Registry in Washington. The bill, signed into law on April 21, 2007, extends to homosexual couples some of the rights automatically given to married couples.
McDermott has since been appointed to the state Senate.
“She put a real human face to the issue; she was someone who had been denied rights we would all expect and hope to have,” said McDermott, who knew the couple before Fleming’s tragic death. “It is a compelling story.”
Rothmiller and Thomp-son, who also have a home in Los Angeles, were drawn to Strong when the couple filmed Gov. Christine Gregoire signing the bill into law. Strong was at Gregoire’s side.
The filmmakers soon approached Strong with the concept of a film that would open the eyes of Americans — a documentary about not only Strong’s struggle, but the struggle of many homosexual couples across America.
“LD and I realized there was a story there that could have an impact on the way people felt about the issue,” Rothmiller said. “Whether or not they agreed with it, they could understand it and meet Charlene. If anyone can learn about an issue, it’s when their hearts are opened.”
The fact is, he said, not a day goes by when homosexual couples are not faced with discrimination under the auspices of state and national law.
And in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act became national law, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman — a major setback for proponents of gay marriage.
In the years that followed, 25 states amended their Constitutions, prohibiting same-sex marriage, and another 20 enacted their own defense of marriage acts that defined marriage as a man-woman union. Washington falls into the latter category.
“It’s not right in 2008 for people to discriminate against each other because of sexuality,” Strong said.
The film, she said, tells more than her story. It tells the stories of other homosexual couples who faced similar exclusion from marital rights. There are 1,138 rights granted to couples once they have a marriage license, Strong said.
“Most couples don’t even know they have that many,” she said. “And for me, I know just how many I don’t have.”
Traveling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to New York, Strong, Rothmiller and Thompson have become agents for change, highlighting what is at stake for same-sex couples.
“There is a great amount of complacency in the gay and lesbian community,” Rothmiller said.
Those who are single don’t feel the issue affects them, he added, and many of those who are partnered don’t think about the issue until they are confronted first-hand with its inequity.
“A film like this is to shake people out of their complacency,” he said.
Creating the film, he added, was more than just the couple’s first feature-length documentary. Prior to Rothmiller and Thompson’s creation of Trick Dog Films, which has produced “For My Wife,” the pair had worked for others — including leading the production team for the singer Jewel. But after realizing they had all the skills to found their own film company, the couple did just that, becoming “a two-man band,” Rothmiller joked, and often “wearing several hats,” Thompson added.
“It was not just the process of making a film, but creating a relationship with Charlene Strong that will last a lifetime,” Rothmiller said. “We are like family. We have shared a great deal, and her loss feels very personal to me.”
Thompson and Strong both described their 18 months developing the documentary as “bittersweet.”
Thompson said he felt deep emotion while making the film, interviewing many across the spectrum, from lawmakers to activists to victims of legal exclusion.
“Many of the interviews themselves were profoundly emotional,” he said, and “frequently a cause for tears.”
“I didn’t know Kate before her passing, but I have come to know Kate through Charlene and through the making of this film. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would have been a dear friend, and one I would have counted as the most admired in my life,” Thompson said.
Making the film has been cathartic, though nothing can heal the pain of losing her wife, Strong said.
“There’s no measure of making it feel better; it just makes sense,” she said. “This is where I’ve landed, and it makes sense for me to keep fighting in Kate’s name.
“It’s difficult to believe that instead of Kate, I have a film, and that hurts a lot.”