Edward Rosenstein believes documentary film can inspire audiences as well as inform them. Based in Brooklyn, he has directed films about a senior center in Florida, a drug rehabilitation center in Harlem, and the boats that rescued thousands of New Yorkers on September 11, 2001. His film The Greatest Tunnel Ever Built, about the laborers who dug the third water tunnel beneath Manhattan, became the basis for an eleven episode series on HISTORY, with Rosenstein as Executive Producer. He recently spoke with the BJFF’s Ken Shulman.
Ken Shulman: Every story needs a strong protagonist. In The Freedom To Marry, you had Evan Wolfson.
Eddie Rosenstein: Evan is an extraordinary person, and one of the brightest people you’ll ever met. He speaks as if he’s reading from a teleprompter. He builds arguments and strategies that are completely watertight. And he is indescribably prescient—able to provide the wisdom and vision to stay the course when the battle seems lost and everyone around him is freaking out. It’s incredible to be in his presence.
KS: You knew him growing up in Pittsburgh. Was it clear he was destined to do great things?
ER: Evan was sort of a legend when we were growing up. He was everyone’s “most likely to succeed.” So it’s not a surprise that he became one of our nation’s foremost civil rights leaders. He’s seven years older than I am; so we weren’t really friends as kids. But our families are very much intertwined. I literally wore his hand-me-downs as a kid. Later on, my Mom would call me up to tell me when Evan was on Face The Nation or Meet The Press, so I’ve been following his work for decades.
KS: Did your family connection help or hinder you during the making of The Freedom To Marry.
ER: It was a joy to work with Evan, to understand who he had become and what he’d accomplished. But there were challenges. Evan had been approached by dozens of filmmakers who wanted to tell his story. He turned them down, because he wasn’t willing to cede the type of narrative control a filmmaker needs. And to begin with, Evan and I sort of had different visions for the project. He challenged me constantly, trying to push me in the direction he wanted me to follow. Ultimately, this isn’t the film he would have made. He wanted to make a historical film. I was emotionally interested in documenting the run-up to the Supreme Court decision. But I think he knew instinctively that I wasn’t going to mess up his story too badly, because my mother wouldn’t let me back into the house if I did.
KS: It’s only been a few years since Massachusetts made same sex marriage legal. Yet until the middle of your film I’d all but forgotten how dogged and vicious the opposition had been.
ER: This is a story that people, especially in places like Massachusetts, think they know. The challenge in this project, and it was a delightful one, was to tell the story in a way that still kept the audience engaged and in suspense. During production, a lot of people warned me that by the time the film came out the Supreme Court decision would be yesterday’s news. They thought no one would care about the plot. But we know how most movies are going to end before we see them. The cop is going to catch the criminal. The boy is going to get the girl, or maybe the boy. The job of the filmmaker is to make that story and characters come so alive they take the audience on a ride with them. A ride that is more intense and emotional than they’d ever suspected.
KS: Can you do that when everyone now knows same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states?
ER: You and I live in bubbles—you’re in Cambridge, I’m in Brooklyn. It’s easy to forget that most of the world is quite different from those places. I just got back from a trip to Wisconsin where a reporter asked me how long I thought it would take before same sex marriage was legal in the U.S. And even though marriage is now the law of the land, laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination are still insufficient in a majority of U. S. states. There are still too many places where gay people can get married over the weekend, and then get fired on Monday for being gay.
KS: Along with being a compelling portrait of Evan—and also of attorney Mary Bonauto—The Freedom To Marry unrolls like how-to manual for social activists. The viewer truly understands the type of commitment, vision, and patience any successful campaign requires.
ER: That was always our intention. Before you make a film, you need to do a big gut check. There’s a financial risk, you are going to put your family under pressure, and you’re only going to get to make a certain number of films in your lifetime. You have to ask yourself why you want to make this specific film. There are too many films that simply point out problems, or deliver information. I want to make films that touch the heart, as well as the head. In a very real sense, it’s tikkun olam. It’s not enough that I had unique access to a compelling character and a huge story with Evan. It’s more about my teenage sons, and the world and problems we are leaving them. I want them to feel empowered. I want to remind them that regular people can change the world for the better. It’s never going to be easy. It will always take a lot of work. But it can be done.
Ken Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.