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Film about Maine’s marriage-amendment fight is showing at MOA

Documentarians were granted unprecedented access to both the ‘vote yes’ and ‘vote no’ campaigns.

Documentarians Joe Fox and James Nubile were granted unprecedented access to both Maine campaigns on the condition no footage air until after the balloting.

Pity Marc Mutty?

When we meet him near the start of “Question 1,” a film about the campaigns for and against Maine’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Mutty describes himself as a conscript — but he’s pretty cheerful about it. He took a leave from his job as public affairs director for the Diocese of Maine, he explains, because there really isn’t anyone else qualified to lead Yes on 1.

“I’m not particularly pleased to be remembered as the star bigot in Maine,” he says. But the job is important: Gay marriage, which that state’s legislature voted to legalize in 2009, “is a bad social experiment.” The only way to stop “counterfeit marriages” from going forth is by voting to amend the state’s constitution.

An hour into the film, a dejected Mutty is talking in a darkened kitchen late at night, clutching a tumbler containing an inch of something amber-colored. He’s been filmed reminding his foot soldiers that they are “stretching the truth” and disseminating “hyperbole” in the hope of scaring people and seeding doubt.

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By the time his side takes to the stage to claim victory in the wee hours after election night, Mutty is simultaneously grousing about how the out-of-state strategist who created the campaigns stole his limelight and asking how he will explain to his gay and lesbian friends that he betrayed his values.

So which is the real Mutty? The one who laments force-feeding voters “a very narrow interpretation of a far greater conversation that needs to take place”? Or the one who felt upstaged by a slick carpetbagger?

Access to both campaigns

Documentarians Joe Fox and James Nubile were granted unprecedented access to both Maine campaigns on the condition no footage air until after the balloting. Much of what their cameras captured illustrates not the politics of the issue but the personal struggles of the ordinary citizens caught up on both sides.

For all the cynicism Mutty’s zig-zagging from righteousness to guilt and back suggests, “Question 1” is a remarkably empathic — indeed, Christian — film. Much of it is shot in churches. Volunteers for both campaigns are depicted at worship, singing along from nearly identical hymnals, talking to friends and neighbors about their beliefs and their own families.

In one segment, Fox and Nubile cut from a shot of an agonized middle-aged man in a plaid shirt describing his fear that gay marriage “will tear society apart” to a scene of two middle-aged men in plaid shirts; the one on the right in tears because their relationship may never be recognized.

The men, whose production company is aptly named Fly on the Wall Productions, have said repeatedly that they set out to tell a fair and balanced story, and for the most part “Question 1” succeeds at this. Where things skew is at the level of the leadership of each campaign.

The leaders

Darlene Huntress, director of field operations for No on 1, looks every bit as sleepless as Mutty. Unlike him, however, much of her constituency has suddenly dared to believe that something they hadn’t so much as dreamed of was suddenly within reach. As the gay and lesbian couples profiled in the film begin secretly putting away a little money for rings and talking hesitantly to their kids, Huntress’s apprehension mounts.

“It just feels like it’s on my shoulders,” she says, “and I don’t want to let them down.”

Mutty’s agony, by contrast, has to do with the tactics used by Yes on 1. He was its nominal manager, but the campaign was run by Frank Schubert, the California strategist whose 11th-hour negative ad blitz is credited with generating the narrow margin of support that carried Proposition 8 in 2008.

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Schubert also is managing Minnesota’s vote-yes campaign, and images have already begun appearing here that are similar to those he and his followers have created and broadcast in the 31 states to enact constitutional gay marriage bans to date.  

In California and elsewhere, Schubert’s polling revealed that swing voters tend to believe that legalizing gay marriage will not affect heterosexual marriages. To counter this in Prop 8, he crafted “argument from consequence” ads that attach painful consequences for straights to same-sex marriage. The most effective have been aped throughout the country.

The princess ad

The most oft-repeated — already broadly circulated here — is that “gay marriage will be taught in schools” and parents will be powerless to object. In one of the most notorious California ads, a pigtailed little girl races into a kitchen squealing, “Mommy, Mommy, guess what I learned in school today? A prince can marry a prince and I can marry a princess!”

Ironically, in one of the film’s most emotional scenes one of the lesbians depicted, Sarah Dowling, stands in front of a framed photo of her daughter Maya, who could pass as the very same moppet, and ruefully describes a similar scene. The girl had just come home from school upset that hers might not be a real family since she had been told that only a man and a woman could be married.

Mutty, meanwhile, professes to be horrified by Maine’s version of the princess ad. “When I saw it, I cringed,” he tells his nonplussed troops. “I can’t see us doing much more with this piece without doing ourselves damage.”

He is wrong, though. A Schubert employee embedded with the campaign — whose sallow, pinched face is straight out of central casting’s villain department — dives in to counter damage done by Mutty’s discomfort. And we soon see Yes on 1 volunteers parroting his talking points.

Gays and lesbians have the same right to be married as anyone else, according to one; they simply need to marry someone of the opposite gender. Gays and lesbians, one of the vote-yes volunteers laments near the end, “just made the wrong choice in the first place.”

Back on the ballot in 2012

On Nov. 3, 2009, Mainers voted 53 percent-47 percent to amend the constitution. In January, Maine’s gay-rights supporters gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put the issue back on this year’s ballot.

Would the outcome have been different there if the campaign had been run the way Mutty envisioned? Will it be here, where the vote no campaign has both more lead time and a crystal clear idea what’s headed our way? Stay tuned.

“Question 1” will be screened at 7 every night this week at the Mall of America, starting tonight. (Thursday’s showing is sold out.) Trailers are posted on the movie’s website, along with reviews, details of showings in other states facing referenda this year and more information about Fox and Nubile.

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Fox will be in attendance at each Mall of America showing to field audience questions, as will representatives from Minnesotans United for all Families, the umbrella group fighting to defeat a similar ballot question here later this year.