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L.A. filmmakers produce video of same-sex marriage trial

February 3, 2010 |  8:50 am

Two Los Angeles filmmakers are shedding light on a federal trial concerning same-sex marriage in California, whose proceedings were blacked out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Using the work of courtroom bloggers, official transcripts and professional actors, John Ireland and John Ainsworth are bringing the trial to life, filming and publishing a 12-part series depicting each day of the proceedings in a San Francisco federal courtroom.

Like many Californians, Ainsworth said he sat down at his computer the morning of Jan. 13, hoping to watch the trial on the constitutionality of prohibiting same-sex marriage in California, and was outraged when he found out it would not be shown on YouTube, as originally planned.

Supporters of Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban, had argued that airing the trial over the Internet could open witnesses up to intimidation or retaliation by gay-rights advocates. The Supreme Court sided with Proposition 8 supporters, arguing in a 5-4 opinion that witnesses could face “harassment as a result of public disclosure of their support” for the ban.

“How dare they block the access to public information?” said Ainsworth, who had married his partner before the ban on same-sex marriage went into effect in November 2008.

Then Ainsworth received a call from his friend Ireland, who also had married his partner before the ban. The two came up with the idea to collect data from courtroom transcripts, bloggers’ dispatches, text messages and other sources to produce the video series.

It came together fast, Ireland said. They started building scripts from blog items Jan. 14 and by the next day released a list of characters to actors and casting directors. The project attracted more than 500 submissions for about 40 roles. Among the actors who signed on were Academy Award nominee Tess Harper and Adrienne Barbeau. All the actors volunteered their time, Ireland said.

They held auditions Jan. 16 and started shooting Jan. 17. The first episode aired Monday, and the filmmakers hope to get the second one up on their own website and on YouTube by the end of the week. Ireland and Ainsworth combed through nearly 3,000 pages of court documents to create the script.

Because each episode closely tracks what happened on each trial date, the episodes vary in length. The first is 5 1/2 hours, and the longest is set to come in at about nine hours.

Ainsworth said the intention was not to advocate for one side or the other.

“We're not trying to have it be a social commentary,” he said. “We're literally just trying to get the information out there.”

The directors are in the process of shooting the eighth episode and plan to shoot a 13th after closing arguments, likely to take place in several weeks. The 12th day of the trial was Jan. 27.

“I strongly believe that our court system should remain transparent,” said Ireland, a former civics teacher. “Our judicial system works best when it is not hidden from the public.”

Constitutional law expert Edward Whelan, a conservative critic of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who is presiding over the federal trial, said the videos could be helpful to the public without presenting a threat to Proposition 8 supporters who feared retaliation.

“Obviously that’s perfectly within their rights,” Whelan said of Ireland and Ainsworth. "The fact that it’s not being done by showing the real witnesses does a lot to mitigate some of the injury that could reasonably have been expected from Judge Walker’s show trial.”

-- Amina Khan

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