Stonewall Uprising, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner 8: The Mormon Proposition, directed by Reed Cowan
Call it the ecstasy and the agony. In honor of gay pride month, a pair of queer-themed docs hits New York theaters. Taken together, they serve as both a testament to how far gay rights have come and a sobering reminder of the provisional nature of those rights. In Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's rousing Stonewall Uprising, the participants in the titular event recount their experiences of that fateful night in June 1969 which they fought back against the police, while ultra-grainy footage and subtle recreations capture a tense feeling of possibility. As background, the filmmakers evoke the public antipathy toward homosexuality and the clandestine nature of gay life in the 60s. "Before Stonewall," one participant explains, "there was no such thing as being 'out.'" Horrifying propaganda films characterizing homosexuality as a mental aberration or a sinister force threatening the American family alternate with footage of police rounding up gay men and women, while veterans of New York's 60s queer scene tell stories of fucking in crowded, reeking meat trucks. In such a climate, even a Mafia-run shithole like the Stonewall became a rare oasis of open same-sex affection—and an unlikely site for the beginning of the gay civil rights movement.
Of course, no sooner are rights granted than they can be brutally stripped away. Reed Cowan's 8: The Mormon Proposition begins by profiling a glowing same-sex couple, one of many who married in California in 2008 only to find the union nullified by the state's Proposition 8. Drawing on rarely publicized documents, Cowan shows how the Mormon Church, whose members constitute just 2 percent of California's population, bankrolled nearly 80 percent of the funds to propagate the ballot measure, issuing "divine" decrees directing their members to contribute large amounts of money, wiping out many a savings account or college fund in the process. Much of this money went to a widespread, factually inaccurate propaganda campaign which eerily echoes the 50s and 60s stock footage on display in Davis and Heilbroner's film. Naturally, the supreme irony of a people long persecuted for their marriage practices inflicting the same damage on others is not lost on Cowan: his is not a subtle film, but an anguished cry, alternating tear-jerking personal accounts with homophobic proclamations from church elders. Moving beyond the Prop 8 campaign, the film's second half relates the untenable position of queer Mormon teens who frequently end up committing suicide, living on the streets, or, as related in one wrenching anecdote, being subjected to brutal "cures." But it's far from just the Church's members who suffer. When powerful groups with deeply entrenched discriminatory attitudes use their influence to shape American politics, no one's civil liberties are safe.
Stonewall Uprising opens June 16 at Film Forum; 8 opens June 18