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Laurel Hester spent her last days fighting for her pension to be passed on to her partner before cancer overcame her body. Her struggle was chronicled in Cynthia Wade's documentary Freeheld, which was just nominated for an Oscar. Michele Kort spoke to the filmmaker about the movie and the honor.

At 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, Cynthia Wade received the call she was hoping for: Her film Freeheld was nominated for an Academy Award in the short documentary field. Freeheld tells the wrenching story of policewoman Laurel Hester's battle to bequeath her 25-year pension to her partner of six years, auto mechanic Stacie Andree, before Laurel died of lung cancer. The governing "Freeholders" of the conservative stronghold of Ocean County, N.J., did not want to grant that right to same-sex partners, even though they had the legal authority to do so.

The Advocate spoke to filmmaker Wade on the afternoon of her big day: She called from snowy Park City, Utah, where she was attending the Sundance Film Festival (the event where, a year before, Freeheld won a Special Jury Prize).

Cynthia Wade shooting Freeholders meetings

How does it feel to win an Oscar nomination? It's been an amazing day. I'm thrilled. We all thought we had a good, healthy shot, but you never know these things.

The genesis of Freeheld was that you and a small crew just showed up at a meeting of the Freeholders where they were discussing Laurel's case. I had two cameras, two assistants, and release forms. I didn't know that they'd let me shoot. And within 15 minutes I knew this was my next film and I'd throw everything aside professionally in my life to do this.

And they just let you shoot? There was a hush and tension in the room and I thought, All right, let me start shooting unless someone tells me to stop. It turns out that in New Jersey you can film anything at a public meeting. That's the law. And I didn't need release forms from the Freeholders. Afterward, I went up to Laurel and Stacie and introduced myself and asked if I could tell their story. And Laurel said yes. She had always wanted to write a book, and realized she was running out of time.

You spent a lot of time with Laurel and Stacie during the last 10 weeks of Laurel's life, often staying over at their house. It was just me and Laurel in the house during the day in early December [2005], looking at old photos and newspaper articles about her life as a detective. She actually seemed in a better mood and less depressed doing that. Stacie was at the auto shop all day, and there was definitely a wariness from her in the beginning -- Who is this filmmaker, and why has Laurel let her come into our lives? But as Laurel got sicker, Stacie began to lean on me more and liked me coming down [Webb lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.]. That's when I crossed the line into being a friend. There's a tradition in documentary film that you should be this fly on the wall, but there was so much at stake with them that I didn't feel I could do that.

You're a straight woman, married with two kids -- did that make it more challenging to film a movie about a lesbian couple? I went to Smith College -- certainly my friends at Smith had better social lives than I did as a straight woman! I went to the Stanford doc program, which was heavily lesbian. And I live in Park Slope, where my older daughter, when she was 2, asked me, "How come I don't have two mommies?" So I have always been an outsider.

You understand what it's like to be gay! And I have to say that I was scared to out myself as straight to Laurel and Stacie when I first met them. I was afraid they were going to judge me! So I did something I still have mixed feelings about: When I shot that first meeting, I took my wedding rings off. After our first shoot away from the hearings -- at the hospital, when Laurel got the diagnosis that her cancer had spread to her brain -- I slipped my rings back on my finger and started talking about my kids. Later, Stacie asked me, "Why didn't you wear your rings the first couple of times we met you?" I said I wanted them to know me as a person first. She said, "I understand, because I hide [my sexuality] sometimes too."

Do you think this film will serve as an activist tool against LGBT discrimination? I think at the heart of a documentary should just be a really good story, but the fact that there are so many Laurel Hesters across the country and the fate of many same-sex couples is similar, I would be remiss if we didn't use it as a tool and use the Oscar campaign as a strategy in the 2008 elections. I certainly don't want to live in an America where only certain people get certain rights. My marriage is absolutely no different from Stacie and Laurel's.

Finally, the question we can't help but ask: What are you going to wear to the Oscars? Oh, my God, I have to find a dress in four weeks!

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Michele Kort