The Utah-based Mormon church plays a starring role in a new Sundance Film Festival documentary about the 2008 ballot initiative that successfully banned gay marriage in California.
Miami-area filmmaker Reed Cowan's "8: The Mormon Proposition," premieres Sunday at the Park City festival.
The film contends that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built on decades of anti-gay teachings to justify its political activism and tried to hide its role as the driving force behind the coalition of conservatives that helped pass Proposition 8. The proposition reversed an earlier court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
The film debuts just as a California federal trial over the constitutionality of the ban enters its third week.
"Karma," said Cowan of the timing and the film's inaugural screening in a theater roughly 25 miles from the Mormon church's headquarters.
"There was no other place on the planet where this could premiere," he said. "This is where the lies came from, this is where the money came from. The sharpest karma that could be leveled on the Mormon church ... it has to be leveled in their own backyard."
Church officials have not seen the film but have reviewed a trailer and other materials posted online, a spokeswoman for the faith said.
"It appears that accuracy and truth are rare commodities in this film," Kim Farah said. "Clearly, anyone looking for balance and thoughtful discussion of a serious topic will need to look elsewhere."
Narrated by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — who like Cowan is gay and was raised Mormon — the 81-minutes film opens with footage of gay couples saying, "I do," in San Francisco's City Hall on June 17, 2008, the first day gays could legally marry and then chronicles what some say was the most expensive initiative campaign in California's history through election day and angry postelection protest marches outside Mormon church temples nationwide.
The film makes its case for Mormon dominance by relying on the investigative work of California political activist Fred Karger, who claims Mormons turned out some 25,000 members weekly as campaign volunteers and made up 71 percent of individual campaign contributions.
The church also disputes allegations in the film by Karger of inaccurate or deceptive campaign finance reporting practices and has posted its contributions on its Web site.
Shot over 19 months for less than $250,000, the film uses statements of past church leaders and personal accounts of gay Mormons and their families in an attempt to explain what Cowan contends is a culture of obedience and an entrenched anti-gay sentiment that permeates Mormonism. Those attitudes, he says, contribute to a myriad of social problems including a suicide and homelessness among young gay Mormons.
Mormon church officials do appear in the film, but only in footage obtained through other filmmakers, media outlets or in church-produced videos that appeared on the Web.
Church officials declined requests for interviews, Cowan said. In one of the film's audio clips, Farah is heard saying the church does not want to be "front and center in a battle with the gay community."
'A war on gays'
Like many faiths, Mormonism teaches that traditional marriage is an institution ordained by God that is central to a healthy society. However, church has said it does not oppose civil unions or other limited rights, such as those related to hospitalization, employment or housing, as long as they don't infringe on the constitutional rights of churches.
Steven Greenstreet, the film's editor and a co-producer, said he hopes the movie will "pull back the curtain" on the power and influence the Mormon church has amassed in the gay marriage debate.
"Voters did not go to the ballot box knowing all the information," said Greenstreet, himself a former Mormon. "I hope for non-Mormons this film pulls back the curtain on a decades long strategic implementation of a war on gays so that they are able to see who was behind the curtain. We owe to the generations of people who have suffered."