I have always been drawn to polarizing and emotional social topics. My 1998 Cinemax documentary Grist for the Mill navigated through the craggy landscape of a failed marriage, while my 2004 HBO documentary Shelter Dogs took an unexpected and controversial look at euthanasia.
Freeheld is a natural continuation of this work.
Like Shelter Dogs, Freeheld unflinchingly faces risk and death, and chronicles a personal story with larger social implications. Like Grist for the Mill, the main character navigates both hope and loss as we move seamlessly between past and present.
In Freeheld, a tough, hard-working policewoman races to protect the person she loves before death separates them, and in doing so, she unleashes a historic battle in Ocean County, New Jersey, a struggle watched across the nation. Freeheld held is a triumphal story that reminds all of us that giant changes occur when ordinary individuals take small, unyielding steps against injustice.
I did not set out to make a film about Laurel Hester. I had given birth to my second child just four months prior, and was busy directing and shooting other projects as well as teaching film at the New School. But I read an article about Laurel in a local paper, and when I read that her partner Stacie was an auto mechanic poised to lose their house, I immediately understood the great risk they faced. I decided to attend a community meeting where Laurel planned to speak to her county officials, the Freeholders. I brought my camera. From that initial meeting, during which I introduced myself to Laurel and Stacie, I rapidly fell into their story, struggle, and lives.
Amidst the great media circus that surrounded Laurel during her campaign, I was the only filmmaker to be granted constant access to Laurel and Stacie. What unfolded in front of me were private, heartbreakingly intimate scenes unattainable to the mainstream media. On and off for the last eight weeks of Laurel Hester's life, I lived with Laurel and Stacie, slept in their guest room, stayed up late with them, and sat in the hospital with them. I was present when Laurel was forced to retire after 27 years of service, when she cuddled in bed with Stacie, and when their priest prayed with them.
I moved quickly from being filmmaker to friend. Laurel wrote me into her will as the only person allowed to film her memorial service; on the day of her funeral all other media people were literally left standing outside in the cold. The result is a deeply intimate and fearless story that I believe only a woman filmmaker could have captured; perhaps it is a film that only I could have captured.