The Oscar-nominated short documentary “Freeheld” was screened to a packed house in the Library Auditorium on Jan. 30 and was followed by a Q-and-A session with the filmmaker, Cynthia Wade.
The film told the story of Detective Lt. Laurel Hester, a woman who served 25 years at the Ocean County Police Department in New Jersey. When Hester was diagnosed with cancer she attempted to transfer her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree.
According to the film’s official Web site, “With less than six months to live, Laurel refuses to back down when her elected officials – the Ocean County Freeholders – deny her request to leave her pension to Stacie, an automatic option for heterosexual married couples.”
Though only 40 minutes in length, the film contrasts the decline of Hester’s health with the growing, passionate grassroots fight by her friends and colleagues, as well as from complete strangers, for Hester’s rights.
“After spending 25 years fighting for justice for other people, I’m at a point in my life where I’m fighting for the woman I love,” Hester said in the film.
According to state law, New Jersey counties must individually decide if domestic partner relationships should have the same rights as heterosexual married couples. During the time Hester’s struggle was filmed, Ocean County had not extended these rights to homosexual couples.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Stacie deserves my pension … If she was heterosexual, she’d get it,” Hester said in the film.
The Ocean County Freeholders were “murdered” by the press, predominantly for their contradictory responses to why they refused to extend the rights, including that it would raise the costs of public funds in the county and would go against the sanctity of marriage. It wasn’t until Gov. Jon S. Corzine got involved in the case that a compromise was reached wherein the freeholders reversed their decision, according to the film.
Cynthia Wade, the film’s director, was surprised by the size of the audience in the auditorium.
“This is an amazing turnout,” she said. “This the first public screening since the Oscar announcement.”
When asked about how she became involved in making the film, Wade said it was an accident. She read about Hester’s case in the newspapers and attended an Ocean County Freeholders meeting with release forms and a camera. Her interest caused her to form a relationship with both Hester and Andree, spending nights at their home and forming a collaboration with the two women.
“I wanted to first tell it as a love story and then show the politics,” Wade explained.
The film, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, has won several awards already, including the Sundance Special Jury Prize. It has had a limited release, screened predominantly at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride events, according to Wade.
The College’s connection with Cynthia Wade began in June 2006, according to Terrence Bennett, business and economics librarian.
“She phoned the library reference desk with a request for assistance in locating a visually interesting educational resource about N.J. state government, specifically one that makes reference to county freeholders (to include in her documentary),” he said.
Bennett said he suggested several ways to locate this information and, along with the library’s head of reference, Pat Beaber, expressed interest in purchasing a copy of the documentary. However, in order to enter it into competitions, Wade could not make copies of the film available for purchase until the awards season ended.
The library was included in an e-mail list for those interested in “Freeheld,” according to Bennett.
“This past fall, at the same time that we were notified that ‘Freeheld’ was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination, we also learned that potential funding for campus programming was available from the office of Academic Affairs,” Bennett said. “We received full support from Library Dean Taras Pavlovsky for our suggestion that we try to secure some of this funding to bring Cynthia to campus to screen her film, and to hold a discussion afterwards.”
The College was interested in screening the film, as it took place in New Jersey, and because of its relevance to women’s and gender studies, political science and other academic programs.
“I liked it. It gives you a whole new perspective,” sophomore marketing major Megan Temple said of the film. “You don’t really see how there are people out there who should get the same rights as everybody else.”
“We were very lucky to be able to schedule the screening so shortly after the Academy Award nominations were announced,” Bennett said. “It was wonderfully appropriate to have the first post-nomination screening take place at a venue in New Jersey.”