Maybe there's a documentary out there in the future on gay rights that will take up as much space on a video store shelf as "Eyes on the Prize," that epic PBS series about the civil rights movement. This as-yet-unmade film would cut a similar path of historical education and emotional devastation. In the meantime, there are earnest testimonials like last year's "For the Bible Tells Me So" and exercises in righteousness like "Saving Marriage," which opens today at Kendall Square.
Directed by Mike Roth and John Henning, the film examines the fight to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts. It manages to raise the most central argument of this debate: Is it more crucial to grant a segment of the electorate rights the majority enjoys or to let the people be heard by putting the amendment to a vote?
The filmmakers build a steady case for the former.
"Saving Marriage" has enough interesting moments to add up to a decent scrapbook. One minute former state representative Shirley Owens-Hicks is making the argument that she'd support gay marriage if homosexuals had suffered to the extent that African-Americans have. Then deposed state Senator Dianne Wilkerson makes a moving counter-argument from the same podium.
The movie is effective when it forgoes talking heads (activists, politicians, lawyers) to observe the ground war between gay marriage and its opponents, namely the strategies gay-marriage advocates devise to keep the amendment from passing. In Peabody, Somerville, and Andover, for starters, men and women ran to unseat incumbents either opposed to gay marriage or more comfortable with the civil union "compromise."
Of course watching, say, the openly gay Carl Sciortino wage a scrappy and successful campaign for the House seat held by gay-marriage opponent Vincent Ciampa, you have to wonder how Sciortino will spend his time once the gay-marriage situation settles. Someone on Sciortino's staff mentions education, but the movie depicts the campaign as focused solely on the amendment issue. Given the number of political upstarts who lost their races, it appears that myopia was more of a problem for some voters than gay marriage per se.
Opening a week after Connecticut legalized gay marriage, "Saving Marriage" is a well-meaning but unremarkable documentary. Which is not to say that there's nothing touching about the movie. In listening to gay men and women assert that they deserve to have their relationships legally recognized, the words "traditional" and "legitimate" come up a lot. Conventionality has rarely seemed like a more compelling human right.