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People often ask Bonnie Burt, a straight married woman and mother, why she chose to make My Sister, My Bride, a 28-minute documentary about a same-sex couple who married in San Francisco during the brief period in 2004 when it was legal. Burt's response is that she sees same-sex marriage as an issue of civil rights, and that, as a Jew, civil rights is something she has always been sensitive to.
Burt, who is very active in Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Calif., got to know Farrell and Caren, the lesbian partners who are the focus of her film, when Farrell was hired to be the synagogue administrator. Burt had been on the hiring committee and during the year and a half that Farrell worked there, Burt invited Farrell and Caren to attend the large Passover seder that she holds yearly.
As they became friends, Burt learned that Farrell and Caren, who had been together for five years, were planning to affirm their love in a commitment ceremony--at that time the only option open for a same-sex couple that wanted to marry. Burt offered to film the ceremony for them. The couple (both Jewish, since Farrell had become a Jew-by-choice while working at the synagogue) was delighted, and Burt made a video of the B'rit Ahuvah, covenant of love, which is included in the documentary.
Then, two years later, shortly after Caren gave birth to a son, San Francisco suddenly began allowing same-sex marriages. Although Caren and Farrell considered themselves emotionally committed already, they wanted to take advantage of the new opportunity to be legally wed. They planned to have another child, and once they were legally married, Farrell would not have to go through the onerous adoption process which she had just gone through in order to be a legal parent to the child.
When they told Burt about their plans to have a legal wedding, she again offered to video it for them. Going to the wedding, Burt had no intention of creating a film out of her video footage. But at city hall in San Francisco, Burt looked around at all the joyous couples--of all races, classes, religions and types of people--and realized how momentous this decision to allow same-sex marriages truly was.
She began to think about how she could contribute to the national conversation on same-sex marriage, and it occurred to her that "putting a human face on the hot-buttom topic" might help change some people's minds about what she perceives as an important civil rights issue: the right for same-sex couples to marry.
With this as her goal, Burt decided to incorporate the footage she had of the commitment ceremony and wedding into a real film. She supplemented what she had with interviews of Caren and Farrell, and with a straight couple from the synagogue who served as witnesses in the wedding ceremony. Interestingly, the female witness goes through a process similar to the one Burt hopes that many viewers will experience. She mentions that she was initially uncomfortable because Farrell wasn't "feminine" enough, but that as she got to know her better, her reservations melted, and she and her husband were able to see Farrell as just a person, not a lesbian.
Asked how this film fits in with her other documentaries--A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma, Song of a Jewish Cowboy, Trees Cry for Rain: A Sephardic Journey, Coming of Age: Adult Bat Mitzvah--and three films about Jews in Cuba--Burt, an old friend of mine, says that she previously tried to document "the end of something," to capture an important part of a fading history," but that she hopes that this film may be documenting "the beginning of something," a time when lesbians and gays are accorded equal civil rights.
The title My Sister, My Bride is taken from the love poetry in the Bible's Song of Songs. Although the phrase is usually thought of as describing the love between a man and a woman, Burt wants it to reflect another type of love today. The rabbis, Burt says, perhaps made nervous by the highly erotic nature of the poetry, tried to reinterpret the words as the story of love between God and the people Israel. If the rabbis could reinterpret the meaning to fit their needs, she says, why can't she, too, do the same? Language evolves and changes, and since "sister" meant "loved one" and "bride" meant "beloved" in biblical times, Burt chooses to apply the phrase to love between women today.
My Sister, My Bride is making the rounds of Jewish film festivals. In fact, it will be shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 8 at 8:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Look for it at a Jewish film festival near you, or order it from Bonnie Burt at www.bonnieburt.com.