“It’s a film by a Pittsburgher, about a Pittsburgher, partially shot in Pittsburgh,” Eddie Rosenstein says of his movie, “The Freedom to Marry,” which kicks off this year’s Three Rivers Film Festival. The film, which has its Pittsburgh debut on Wednesday, Nov. 16, has multiple local connections and is on its way to becoming a major force on the national and international film festival circuit.
“The Freedom to Marry” follows the 100 days leading up to the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize same-sex marriage. It tells the story through the eyes of Evan Wolfson, the attorney who is credited with starting the marriage equality movement more than 30 years ago. But it also recalls the decades of struggle that led up to that decision and sheds a light on the movement to legitimize and welcome same-sex marriage throughout the country and the world.
Rosenstein is the filmmaker; he’s Pittsburgh born and bred, raised in Squirrel Hill and the son of Yale and Barbara Rosenstein. Wolfson also grew up in Squirrel Hill and is the son of Jerry and Joan Wolfson — Jerry is known to generations of Pittsburghers as a beloved pediatrician. And the two families — the Wolfsons and Rosensteins — have known each other for more than six decades and are very close. So it’s not unusual that their two sons should come together professionally in this well-crafted and gripping documentary.
The story dates back to 1983, when Wolfson decided to write his law school thesis “on why gay people should be able to marry,” he recalls. He was angered that gays were denied “important legal and economic protections that marriage brings, and the intangibles, things like the dignity marriage brings.” The young law student felt it was unfair and unconstitutional, and decided to devote himself to working against discrimination on the federal level.
Over the years, he helped bring same-sex marriage cases before the courts, and in the 1990s was co-counsel on a case in Hawaii that launched a global movement to legitimize same-sex marriage. Though that and other cases were subsequently overturned by the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which defined marriage as the union of a man and woman), Wolfson had galvanized the gay and straight communities to take on this civil rights cause. He began an organization, Freedom to Marry, which spearheaded the movement.
Fast forward to 2015. The case for same-sex marriage was finally about to be heard before the Supreme Court. Interest in this subject brought many filmmakers to Wolfson’s door, but one was especially intriguing — Rosenstein, who had been working as a well-respected documentary filmmaker for years.
“My family and the Wolfsons are very close friends,” Rosenstein recalls. “Our families are intertwined. And though I wasn’t close with Evan” — Rosenstein is several years younger and remembers Wolfson as “one of the little kids” — when Rosenstein called and offered to tell Wolfson’s story, Wolfson couldn’t say no.
“It was clear that we could work together well,” Wolfson recalls, and just a few days after that initial contact, Rosenstein was already shooting interviews. He was able to follow the case in the months preceding the Supreme Court hearing to its final, successful conclusion.
Rosenstein manages to keep viewers on the edge of their seats — even though the conclusion is foregone — “because the real form of art is living through the journey so we care, we’re emotionally engaged. We know the stakes and the obstacles and we’re rooting for these people,” he explains.
And root we do. The film has already won several awards, most recently Best Documentary at the Savannah Film Festival. It’s been picked up for national and international distribution, and will be in theatrical release in March, 2017.
“I think the film does a beautiful job of showing the three elements we needed for success — hope, clarity and tenacity,” Wolfson observes. “This didn’t happen overnight. I worked on this for 32 years.”
Rosenstein adds that the film shows what one person can do. “Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states and 22 countries,” he says, “and that’s what Evan pulled off.”
It was chosen to open the Three Rivers Film Festival because it’s a great film with local ties. “I couldn’t be prouder that it’s showing here,” Rosenstein says, “because I still have one foot in Pittsburgh.”
Wolfson adds he’s “deeply moved to get a chance to sit in a row with my parents and family, Eddie with his parents and family, and our friends, in the place where I grew up.”
Three Rivers is being presented by Film Pittsburgh, formerly JFilm. The program begins at 7 p.m. at the August Wilson Center, with both Rosenstein and Wolfson in attendance. For information, visit http://filmpittsburgh.org/films/.