Ocean County, New Jersey Police Lieutenant—and until now closeted lesbian—Laurel Hester is dying.
All she wants to do is leave her pension benefits to her life partner – Stacie, so Stacie can afford to keep their house which she is in desperate peril of loosing otherwise.
Laurel is told no; they are not husband and wife. After spending a lifetime fighting for justice for other people, Laurel – a veteran New Jersey detective – launches a final battle for justice with the eyes of an entire nation—and one remarkably determined filmmaker—focused steady on her plight.
In a little more than 40 minutes, documentarian Cynthia Wade brings into sharp focus an important and brilliantly powerful examination of a microcosm of the battle for equality for gay and lesbian equality. Considering the political environment we are facing heading into the 2008 Presidential Election when equal rights for GLBT partners nationwide will likely be fought more and more on a state level, “Freeheld” is perhaps one of the most important GLTB documentaries to make the independent film circuits this year.
The absolute absurdity of the situation is perfectly highlighted by the anachronistic title of the “Freeholders” who stood steadfast and stone-faced against Laurel Hester and her nationwide support as the story broke on national news. Any rational being who watches this documentary will be hard pressed to believe it was filmed in the liberal North Eastern United States in 2005.
By simply presenting the facts of the situation without trying to hype or spin the story, Cynthia Wade presents perhaps the single best, most coherent argument for GLBT equality in a number of years. Did I mention that Cynthia Wade is a heterosexually married mother of two? Who better to make the case?
No one, I say. In my not-so-humble opinion, if the already award winning (2007 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize) “Freeheld” isn’t Oscar-worthy material for Best Short Film, I don’t know what is!
Recently, “Freeheld” filmmaker Cynthia Wade took time to chat with O&AN during a phone interview about her film and her remarkable subject matter: Lieutenant Laurel Hester.
For more information on Cynthia Wade and her documentary “Freeheld” visit www.freeheld.com and www.cynthiawade.com .
For exact screening times and more information on the NaFF, please visit www.nashvillefilmfestival.org.
I have read in previous interviews where you comment that had you not shown up to the Freeholders meeting when you did that the film would never had happened. How did you happen to become involved in Lt. Hester’s story at the fortuitous time that you did?
I read an article in a local newspaper in Brooklyn about Laurel Hester and her 25 year career ending with her being diagnosed with terminal cancer and then being turned down on her pension benefit request. The story in the paper piqued my interest so I decided to go down to a Freeholder meeting having no idea at all if they would even allow me to film. It turns out that there is a New Jersey law that anybody can film in a public meeting and there were a number of other cameras present. Within 15 minutes of beginning to film I was shocked. I could not believe what I was witnessing. I decided right then and there that this was going to be my next film.
At the time of your decision, were you in the process of looking for the subject for your next film or did you find yourself having to abandon other projects in order to pursue this one?
I was definitely in a place where I was looking for my next film at the time. It’s a long-term commitment when you take on a film project. You might go out on a few blind dates with subject matter here and there and see what happens, but if you are going to commit to a film it will become your life and it is very much like a marriage. I want to be careful about what kinds of film I commit to because once I commit that’s it. I’m eating, breathing, sleeping and living it full time. As a director this is the first project with GLBT subject matter I have worked on but it just seemed right to do. Controversial social issues told through the eyes of strong women tend to be my thing so this was a perfect fit for me. I was really taken with her story because there was so much at stake.
When I was watching the documentary, I was impressed by the attention to detail that you utilized in such a short amount of time. Laurel Hester was such a presence in the film without having to do anything but show her in frame. What were your first impressions upon coming into the presence of this remarkable woman?
I was stricken at first by Laurel herself. She had amazing poise for someone in her incredibly dire circumstances. At that point she only had 6 months left to live and had already been turned down multiple times by the Freeholders. She didn’t want to be out as a gay woman in her community when she was very quietly and most definitely in the closet. She was forced to come out due to the circumstances. I remember seeing her sit there with a quiet poise and incredible dignity despite the circumstances.
There are also a number of other rather unlikely voices that are featured on the film in support of Lt. Hester’s cause. Am I correct in assuming you seem to be making a point of highlighting these voices to drive home the message?
Yes. It was very revealing to me that there were all of these mostly male and some of them very macho police officers in this traditionally very heterosexual male dominated world that suddenly had become these sort of unlikely gay activists by standing up for her. For some of them it was the first time that the issue had ever hit home like that. It was very moving to me that these officers were going to stand by their partner and fight for her regardless.
As a documentarian, I know that you strive to be objective in your presentation. What was it like for you to find yourself in the center of this amazing story?
It was amazing to me that Stacy, her life-partner was very clearly poised to lose her house if the pension didn’t get approved and there just seemed to be this sort of flat denial in the room that if they just said no enough that it would just go away. There was this drama that had been set into motion and was unfolding so rapidly and it was incredibly moving and compelling to be in the middle of all of that. I live in Brooklyn so going to Ocean County and experiencing politics there was a new experience for me. At first I didn’t even know what a Freeholder was, which is pretty much everyone’s reaction when they first see the film because it’s such an archaic term from Colonial days. As I understood it from several sources, the Freeholders almost always vote together as a united front so I gather that even if there are differing opinions regarding the vote they would often help each other out and reach a decision in private and then come out with a united front and back each other up in public. I think that they were really caught off guard with how big this fight was going to get and how many supporters she was going to have not only in terms of the other counties in New Jersey but people across the nation were following this and they were getting calls and e-mails of support from as far away as Australia.
There seems to be a lot about Lt. Hester that is said without really saying anything in the film. She seems to have incredible resolve in the face of these ridiculously impossible circumstances. As you were filming “Freeheld” what were you trying to communicate about Lt. Hester as you focused your camera on her plight?
She was always very quiet and sometimes very unassuming but amazingly strong and as I talked to people around her I soon learned what that strength was truly born of. Many of her partners told me that it was a usual occurrence for her to have been the one that helped solve a crime and later on a male officer would come in and take responsibility for the collar. She was very quiet about it and never complained because to her it was always about the work and seeing that justice was served. She would always just quietly go back to what she did which was often very unglamorous work. She was the person who would sit in a freezing van late at night for hours on end waiting to take a surveillance photo of some guy who was up to no good. She was so committed to the work that when another person took the credit it was just in her personality to allow it and return to her quiet life and career. I think that for that reason she was often underestimated by the police department and as a result of that I think she was underestimated by the Freeholders. They didn’t seem to take into consideration her tenacity of sticking with that job for 25 years and in fact had tackled lots of bad guys and had solved murders and had nabbed the rapists only to have the credit given to someone else. That kind of tenacity was definitely going to serve her well in this fight.
Your passion for the story is evident in your delivery. What do you feel are the goals that you have with this film?
I really feel like it is important to bear witness to Laurel Hester’s life. If I had not shown up to that first Freeholder meeting, if I had blinked for just a second or thought about how I was going to pay for this or I had thought about how many commitments I would have to give up in my life in order to make this film, then this film would not have been made—her story would have been gone in a flash. It just happened that I showed up and got to be there for the last ten weeks of her life. As I got to know her better I felt a real responsibility to not only bear witness to her life but to show respect to her career.
In the DVD extras for the film I will include her memorial service where he minister said “If you would have blinked, you would have missed her.” I feel like that could be taken a number of ways when you apply it to her fight, her career and her life. I feel like I have to share her story with as many people as possible both gay and straight. There were many people who said that she would have moved much further in her career than the hard earned rank of Lieutenant had she not been a woman and certainly had she not been a closeted lesbian. This is a way to celebrate her life and accomplishments and it was something that she was very excited about.
In the final days of Lt. Hester’s life there were undoubtedly times that you questioned the ethics involved in filming a dying woman’s final moments. How did you navigate what I am sure was a delicate terrain?
My style as a filmmaker tends to be very unflinching in the face of difficult situations. I didn’t realize until I was editing this film but “Freeheld” is the third film I’ve written and directed that had death in it. It seems to be a theme that runs through my work without my actually realizing it until recently. They trusted me to tell the story and there were definitely moments where it felt way too intimate in which case I turned off the camera. She felt very committed to my presence, however. For instance, when her priest was there and the hospice workers were there she insisted that I be present. I tried to use those scenes powerfully but sparingly in the film. There were many times that she was very sick and I didn’t film because I would not have wanted that on record at the end of my life. I tried to use that as my benchmark for when I would and would not film. I would think “would I want this?” and if the answer were no then I wouldn’t do it.
There were several people close to Laurel who said that the film project helped to perk her up some because it gave her something to focus on. It was something to take her mind off the fact that she was dying. If we could go through pictures or get her to change clothes for an interview it was something that helped her through those final days.
It was a very difficult terrain to navigate because of the subject matter. Increasingly, it became difficult to remain objective as I watched this happen to these very normal everyday people. Stacey is very happy with the film now but it was a very scary thing to show her the final piece because I knew that she was just going to have to watch Laurel die again.
Was there any fear that people might perceive you as being someone trying to advance herself or profit off of the misfortune of this tragic tale?
There definitely was. I didn’t want to be in a position after Laurel’s death of having people doubting her belief in the project, so in the DVD there is a great deal of interviews with Laurel talking about what the project means to her and there is a whole section of interviews with friends and family members that will be included. We also are working on building a comprehensive website so that people can learn what their rights are in their community. I decided to make this a short film because I feel that most documentaries are too long and also as a short film it can be used as an education and advocacy tool particularly as we start going towards the 2008 elections where there will be many battles on the state level for domestic partnership rights and the other issues that are related.
As a heterosexually married mother of two, why is the story of someone as different from you as a closeted lesbian police officer so important to you?
That’s just the point. Lt. Laurel Hester wasn’t that different from me at all. She was just a normal woman who wanted to live her life and then die in peace. What else does anyone want? I just don’t think we will totally be free in this country until everybody is treated equally. We’ll look back on this fight for same-sex rights in the future and it will seem so archaic just like when women gained the right to vote or the idea of separate drinking fountains for black people. Laurel paid her taxes, served her community in her life and work while living very quietly and normally with her partner Stacey and it doesn’t violate or affect my marriage at all. How is her commitment to Stacey any different than mine to my husband and how is it invalidating m marriage at all? I don’t even understand the argument at all quite frankly.