8 (2010): The Mormon Proposition: Reed Cowan’s Documentary (LGBTQ)

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Reed Cowan’s new, timely documentary, “8: The Mormon Proposition,” is most compelling as an expose of the Mormon Church itself.
Looking beyond the immediate issue of Proposition 8, he goes into the church’s theology and history, including its infamous long association with the practice of polygamy.
Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
8: The Mormon Proposition
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World-premiering at the 2010 Sundance Film Fest, the docu is the first theatrical release of the new entrepreneurial company, Red Flag, headed by Laura Kim and Paul Federbush.
In this provocative docu, the San Francisco City Hall and the Salt Lake Temple stand at opposite ends of a great divide. At the City Hall, we are reminded of the tear-filled, joyous same-sex marriages that took place there in 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that a statutory ban on said marriages was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, deep in the Salt Lake Temple, the Mormon leaders are already plotting — and plotting well — their nefarious campaign to assure passage of California’s Proposition 8, which will put a swift end to all that tear-filled joy.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press).

Cowan is not going for any shades of gray in this film. He is positing good versus evil, good guys versus bad guys. But “8” makes a most convincing and robust argument that there are no shades of gray in this case: There was nothing justifiable about Proposition 8 or the Mormon Church’s cowardly involvement in spreading the unconscionable misinformation that secured its unfortunate triumph. That no church officials would go on record on camera with Cowan accentuates the strong impression that this movie has indeed caught the church red-handed.
Cowan begins building his argument by suggesting that Proposition 8 was the culmination of the Mormon Church’s longstanding campaign against gay rights. The modus operandi of the church has always been, Cowan shows, to stay as invisible as possible, relying on coalitions with other churches, particularly the Catholic Church, as front groups for its manic work behind the scenes. He presents how well this worked in Hawaii, where the Mormons were instrumental in convincing voters in 1998 to approve a constitutional amendment paving the way for a law banning same-sex marriage in the 50th state.
But in California a decade later, the stakes were much higher. “8” documents how the Mormons went all-out in rallying the faithful for this ultimate battle. He includes grainy footage of the spooky presence of Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraging the Mormon Nation that “you are a mighty army.”
A mighty army, indeed, and one with deep pockets. Cowan next outlines the church’s disturbingly relentless pursuit of funding from its membership, eventually raising at least $22 million, likely more, to pour into California. Much of the money was spent on a media blitz that featured the notorious “storm is coming” ads. The church’s questionable use of children in many of these spots — stoking fears, for instance, that school kids would be “exposed” to same-sex unions by their teachers — is duly noted. In the end, 71 percent of the financial contributions toward passage of Proposition 8 wound up coming from the Mormons.
A big question that Cowan needs to answer in “8” is “For heaven’s sake, why?” The Church of Latter Day Saints had come a long way in terms of public relations since the 1970s, when it still treated African-Americans as second-class citizens; why risk its improved reputation by taking such a strong stand on same-sex marriage? The answer Cowan offers up, primarily through interviews with various disaffected Mormons, is that irrational fear was the real motivating factor within the church culture: “The horror! The horror!” of America becoming gayer and gayer. It makes sense, then, that the church resorted to sharply honed fear tactics in its campaign. Many Californians who did not fully understand the proposition, Cowan suggests, were frightened into voting it through.
 
As noted, Cowan’s film is most compelling as an expose of the Mormon Church itself. We get the sense of a huge, powerful, mysterious, and hypocritical religious institution that is in many ways dangerously behind the times: stuck in the 1970s, perhaps, or the 1950s, or even the 1830s.
This sense is amplified by a couple of shocking interviews Cowan accomplishes with monstrous Mormon figures whom you would never want to meet in a dark alleyway: Gayle Ruzicka, on outspoken Mormon activist, and Chris Buttars, an outspoken Mormon bishop now serving as a Utah state senator. Both proudly condemn gays in ways that defy logic and decency. Buttars, in particular, goes so far as to tell Cowan that gays are the “greatest threat to America going down” and will “destroy the foundation of the American society,” even likening gays to radical Muslims. We see his colleagues in the Utah State Senate sadly falling in line behind him.
At a tight 78 minutes, “8” zips by, sometimes too quickly. Several sequences–one examining the Mormon Church’s tax-exempt status and another on allegations from gay students at Brigham Young University of being subjected to shock therapy–could have been extended to further strengthen Cowan’s main points. But in every minute of this film, we feel his fearlessness in taking on LDS, no holds barred. This is a brave film that leaves us with the courageous examples of many Mormons now standing up to their church, including a cute young married couple, Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, whose love story touchingly emphasizes the human element of this controversy.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

At the end of the film, we return to a much-changed Salt Lake Temple. We see protesters who have been awakened to the Mormon Church’s decisive role in Proposition 8 surround the temple. While this proposition may still look like a victory for the anti-gay movement, we are left wondering if the Mormons have not unwittingly handed the greater victory to gay rights. It’s now absolutely clear where the bigotry is coming from and what is driving it.
This film could have been easily and aptly called “Getting To Know the Mormon Church.”
Unfortunately, the movie was seen by few people, and was declared a disappointment upon its initial release.
By Jeff Farr

Credits:

Directed by Reed Cowan, Steven Greenstreet
Produced by Cowan, Greenstreet, Christopher Reece-Volz, Emily Pearson
Written by Reed Cowan
Narrated by Dustin Lance Black
Music by Thomas Chase, Nicholas Greer
Cinematography Reed Cowan and others
Edited by Steven Greenstreet and others

Production company: David v. Goliath Films

Distributed by Red Flag Releasing; Wolfe Video (DVD)

Release date: January 18, 2010 (Sundance); June 18, 2010 (US)

Running time: 80 minutes
Budget $2.5 million
Box office $100,280