8: The Mormon Proposition

Docu pits the fight to legalize gay marriage against the fund-raising power of the Mormon Church.

Narrator: Dustin Lance Black.

Produced by a company called David v. Goliath, “8: The Mormon Proposition” pits the fight to legalize gay marriage against the awesome fund-raising power of the Mormon Church. Mostly preaching to the converted, Reed Cowan’s docu serves as agitprop against Prop. 8 (a 2008 ballot initiative that added the line, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” to the state constitution), exposing Mormons’ hand in the campaign. Although controversy could spur interest, the pic hasn’t been as incendiary as one might expect playing just north of LDS HQ at the Sundance Film Festival.

When it comes to minority rights, progress rarely comes in the form of a popular ballot, and though Prop. 8 marks the first time Californians had voted to limit an existing freedom from their constitution, Mormons are hardly the only group opposed to same-sex unions. But having raised an estimated $22 million on behalf of the cause, they are a logical target for Cowan and co-director Steven Greenstreet’s attack.

As enraged responses go, “8” actually spends more time trying to humanize homosexuals than to demonize those who hate them, although it’s telling that so many former Mormons came together to make it. Both Cowan and narrator Dustin Lance Black (the screenwriter of “Milk”) grew up gay in Mormon families, and producer Emily Pearson (also one of the film’s more eloquent talking heads) became an activist after her dad, gay and Mormon, died of AIDS.

“8” seems determined to reach the next generation of confused Mormon teens, touching on everything from sexual identity-related suicides and homelessness to punishing attempts at curing homosexual urges. Instead of stooping to the level of Focus on the Family’s misleading Prop. 8 ads, the pic damns the LDS Church not with lies, but with their own words.

Armed with a stockpile of internal Mormon documents, former political consultant Fred Karger lays out how church officials strategically reached out to other religious groups and established orgs to advocate their agenda. Even more damaging are the church elders’ own voices (distorted and superimposed over unflattering Big Brother-like closeups for effect), their comments lifted from an hourlong satellite broadcast in which they attack homosexuality and frame their crusade as a fight for religious freedom.

Even in the face of hate speech (such as their interview with Utah Sen. Chris Buttars, which proved so incendiary the filmmakers leaked it to the press), “8” remains mostly polite. Every so often Cowan throws a zinger, as when he observes that Tyler Barrick (who married Spencer Jones in San Francisco and serves as one half of “8’s” poster couple) is a direct descendent of Mormon leader Frederick G. Williams.

Pic’s latter section is engineered as a tearjerker, as though hoping that if logical arguments don’t sway auds, perhaps emotional ones will. For those close to the issue, “8” simply rehashes much of what they already know. For sympathetic outsiders, on the other hand, it covers a lot of ground in a short space, not always in the most organized way, but on enough fronts to spark an informed dialogue.

8: The Mormon Proposition

Production: A David v. Goliath Prod. presentation. Produced by Steven Greenstreet, Chris Volz, Emily Pearson. Executive producers, Reed Cowan, Bruce Bastian. Directed, written by Reed Cowan. Co-director, Steven Greenstreet.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Cowan, Chris Volz; editors, Greenstreet, John Kinhart, Brian Bayerl; music, Nicholas Greer; sound, Chris Crane. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spotlight), Jan. 25, 2010. Running time: 81 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Dustin Lance Black.

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