I interviewed Donna Zaccaro about her amazing documentary, To a More Perfect Union: U.S. V. Windsor. Her answers give insight into not only the making of the film, but how by documenting history, law, time spans, culture changes and law, it truly does take people of the US towards a more perfect civil rights Union.
Joanna: What inspired you to make this documentary?
Donna Zaccaro: I have a non-profit film production company called Ferrodonna Features. And we focus on films about women, women’s issues, and social justice. So I’m always looking for stories about women. And I heard Roby and Rachel speak shortly after the decision came down from the Supreme Court, and I was blown away by the two of them. They were so articulate. And these two women of two different generations banded together and took on the US government was a great sort of David and Goliath story. And then the more I learned about it; with learning about Edie and Thea’s love story, how the case developed, how Roby and Edie came together.. and there were just so many different levels to the story. What I’m also always looking to do is find personal stories that tell a bigger story. It immediately told the history behind it.
Edie’s story is really the story of gay rights in this country, it’s the story of gay history. It’s also an even bigger story. I see it as the latest chapter of the civil rights movement.
Q: I know it’s releasing today on the big screen at more than 150 theaters nationwide, which is an amazing achievement for a documentary, but will it be released on digital after that too? And if so, in different countries/languages?
Donna: We’re hoping that there will be a broadcast actually. That would be the next sort of release stage. It’s been at festivals for months now and then we’re doing the theatrical release, and the next phase is broadcast. We don’t have a date yet, but in the fall or winter probably. After the broadcast it will be released on streaming platforms; digitally and also then sold into the educational market. I hope this this film will be used ultimately by Universities and High Schools, and gender studies classes, political history, and all of those sorts of classes. Professors can even assign pieces of it, and it can be discussed that way.
Q: Do you think kids in the future will learn about these legal pivotal cases in the quest for equal rights? The same way that they learn about the Civil War, or World War II?
Donna: I hope so! The reason that we named the film “to a more perfect union” was because there were so many different unions discussed in the film. Marriage as a union. The marriage of Edie and Thea, but then also the marriage of Roby and Rachel’s marriage. The Lawyer-Plaintiff union. But then when your talking about our country as a union, in talking about this case, we were saying that was moving our country closer to a perfect union. It pushed the country one step further towards achieving equality.
As much as people talk about all of the civil rights struggles, I think that this is part of the civil rights story as well, and certainly it should be taught in schools.
Younger generations don’t know that gays in this country were being arrested. They had to be closeted. And how it changed, and what caused it to change. So there was a whole political shift and cultural shift. And it took place over decades.
Q: Do you think that Edie and Thea were truly willing to go to jail at any time in their many years together just for being caught as married lesbians?
Donna: I never asked Edie that question. But I don’t think they were willing to go to jail. They remained closeted. I never asked Edie when she felt comfortable coming out. She moved to NY from Philadelphia in order to allow herself to be gay. But when she and Thea decided to get engaged, even though they knew at that point that getting married in the 1960’s wasn’t even a possibility, she wouldn’t wear an engagement ring. She didn’t want people at work to know that she was gay. That’s why she wore the diamond circle pin. The circle symbolized eternity, the same thing a wedding band does. But this way people wouldn’t ask who the guy was. Their friends certainly knew, but I think they were very careful about how they lived their lives, and how open they were.
Meanwhile, the reason why I thought it was important to include Roby’s story, Roby is a gay woman 40 years younger than Edy – and she didn’t come out until her third year of law school, in the 1990’s in NY. So it took a long time for people to be comfortable with coming out.
As I hope I showed in the film, Stonewall was really a pivotal point in terms of gays saying we’re not willing to be arrested anymore, we’re not willing to be harassed. That’s was a turning point. And gay pride parades were a result of that, from Stonewall. Then the Aids movement was the next pivotal point because as Frank Rich said in the film, people could no longer hide because they were sick and dying. So people had to come to terms with how many gays there were… and that they were friends, family, colleagues, they knew and loved and never really knew they were gay. Or if they did, never really talked about it.
I don’t know that Edie would be willing to go to jail, I know that she was an activist and participated in protests. Her biggest protest was bringing this case. It was her saying I won’t put up with this indignity. How could they not acknowledge my love of 44 years? I don’t get into this in the film, but her spouse Thea was a paraplegic the last 20 years of life together. She nursed Thea and took care of her. And they were together 44 years. Talk about a marriage!
Q: Edie seemed so content and happy. But what if they ultimately hadn’t won the case, do you think she’d still be fighting somehow/someway even in her older years, or would be any less happy?
Donna: She passed away after the film was completed, on September 12th (2017). She saw the film before it was completed, twice in fact. I think she would have been happy that she brought the case. It made its way through the court system, and it had victories along the way. I think if it had not won in the Supreme Court she would have disappointed, but she would have been happy that she at least forced the conversation. It was the right time.
Q: Did you need to know that integral figures Edie Windsor and Roberta Kaplan were willing to be in this documentary before beginning?
Donna: Yes. I did not know whether Edie would participate in the documentary because there had been a documentary done about her and Thea before Thea had died. It’s called Edie and Thea; a very long engagement. It’s a lovely film and story. But there hadn’t been one about the case. So I wasn’t sure if she’d be willing to do it. I first met with Roberta. She’s the one who gave me the exclusive rights to it.
I wouldn’t have proceeded or been able to raise enough money for the film without having at least having at least 1 of the 2 principals. I figured even if I could not interview Edie, there was enough archival footage of Edie that I could have told the story with. But obviously it was much better to have the interview with her.
Because we’re a non-profit production company(501c3) we raised money from foundation/grants/donors – the lead funder in this was the Ford Foundation. I went to them pre-production to raise the funds, and one of the key selling points was exclusive rights to the documentary.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
Donna: The biggest challenge in telling the story… or the editorial decision. The biggest challenge in making any film is the fundraising. I think you’re asking about the editorial side of it. Raising money for documentaries is always the most difficult part of it.
Editorially the biggest challenge was that I wanted to make sure I explained the legal process, and how the case went through the system that provided enough details that people would understand it, but wasn’t boring. And that gave enough detail but didn’t get too much involved in the minutia. A case doesn’t just go to the Supreme Court, there are all of these steps involved in lower courts that they have to go through.
And how much of the history to provide. And how much of the actual arguement you want to include, because there are several pieces of it. And then you can only include parts of it. I’d say that those were big challenges. And the other thing was how to show the societal political cultural shift that took place. Again, you always want to put in enough so that people understand and you convey the story, but you don’t want to put in too much that you lose them in the weeds.
I have LGBT friends who have seen it, who have learned alot and been surprised about how much gay history they didn’t know in this country. Alot of them didn’t even know about Edie’s case. And certainly straight audiences has even less knowledge of the history of gays in this country, and what they’ve gone through, and the discrimination that is still taking place. That was again why I included Roby and Rachel’s story too-about their son in the hospital. These are 2 high powered NYC lawyers in 2006, and were still discriminated against.
I don’t think that straight audiences even know what goes on because they don’t give it a second thought.
Roby, her goal in their briefs and in her arguments was to show that Edie’s love and marriage was just like anybody else’s love and marriage. That’s what I was trying to show in the film. Love is love, marriage is marriage, and family is family. There are several points in the film that I still get choked up every time I see, and one of them is when Rachel says that what got to her so much that now she didn’t have to worry about her child. That her children would be treated as anybody else’s children. Any parent can relate to that.
Big thanks to Donna for interviewing! You can learn more about the film and where the film is screening at: https://perfectunionfilm.