Freeheld strikes a beautiful balance between depicting the political and social justice aspects of the story and the personal tale of a couple in love while facing mortality. Cynthia Wade films them at their home, hanging out with their cat and dogs, and snuggling together. She shows Andree at her job as a mechanic, calling medical billing offices on Hester’s behalf during her break. We see Andree doing yard work, making more phone calls, and being fully present for her partner. "Stacie was the most unbelievable caretaker," Wade said.
With Wade’s continued presence in the couple’s lives, their friendship grew, and Wade faced tough choices about what she should film, even though she had largely been given carte blanche by Hester. "If I had uncomfortable feelings," Wade explained, "I put the camera down. I couldn’t continue to film when she was in pain. I erred on the side of being conservative."
During the last few weeks of Hester’s life, Wade left a camera with Andree, who shot some of the final footage. Hester had made a provision in her will that Wade be the only one allowed to film at her memorial service, and that footage closes Freeheld.
Things moved quickly for the filmmaker as well. "Documentaries often take several years to film and edit," Wade said, but Freeheld was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, not quite one year after Hester’s death.
Wade, who had attempted to interview the men on the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders on numerous occasions and was refused, attempted one last time when she found out that Freeheld was going to be screened at Sundance. "I sent them a certified letter, told them about the screening, and told them I wanted to give them one more chance to tell their side of the story," she said. "I received a certified letter back from them saying that they ‘respectfully declined’ to speak with me."
Freeheld won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and went on win awards at numerous festivals throughout 2007.
It was especially warmly received at LGBT film festivals such as Outfest, where it won the Audience Award, and Newfest, where it won Best Short Documentary. But Wade’s goal all along — which she had shared with Hester and Andree during filming — was to take the film outside the community.
"My goal has been to hit as much of the heterosexual audience as possible, especially as we head into the 2008 election year," Wade said. "Just like An Inconvenient Truth raised awareness about global warming, this film — this film can be a catalyst for change. Laurel was part of the tide of change [in New Jersey]. When Governor Corzine signed the civil union bill into law, he mentioned Laurel’s name."
Wade decided to create Freeheld as a short documentary rather than a feature-length one. "I thought it would compete better as a short, and I explained this to Laurel at the time," she said. At 38 minutes long, though, it is longer than most short films and was a difficult length for some festival programmers to cope with. "We missed out at some festivals as a result," Wade admitted.
But it’s the perfect length, for example, to be shown in a 50-minute class or at a city council meeting. "I want to live in a country where equal means equal, not separate but equal," Wade said. She feels a strong responsibility to get this film and its message out to as many people as possible.
Dane Wells, who has seen Freeheld three times to date, was "bowled over by the artful way Cynthia Wade told Laurel and Stacie’s story."
And Stacie Andree said: "I think Cynthia did a great job at putting the film together. I believe that she deserves every award that it has gotten and hopefully will get."
In an email interview with AfterEllen.com, the intensely private Andree told us about the impact of the very public battle with the Freeholders, the publicity about the film, and how she is doing now, two years after the events depicted in the film.
"I like my privacy and still try to keep it," Andree wrote. "I try to avoid being noticed … I am doing well. I work a lot of hours and spend time with my animals and friends. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on my house, anything to keep busy, and I like it."
She’s hopeful that the film will have a positive impact: "The more publicity it gets, I hope the drive for equality will come about. … I would like people to realize that we are not all treated equal. I never thought my relationship was any different than my mother and father’s until this all happened."
Andree is sure Hester would have been pleased with the final film. "Laurel would absolutely love it, without a doubt," she wrote. "She would want everyone to see it and grow from it."
For more on Freeheld, visit the film’s official site. The 80th Annual Academy Awards will be presented on Feb. 24, 2008, on ABC. To watch a never-before-seen clip of an interview with Laurel Hester, click here.