Freeheld, the gripping 38-minute film about a dying New Jersey police lieutenant’s successful fight to transfer her pension benefits to her domestic partner, has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Short Subject category.
Directed by Cynthia Wade, Freeheld relays the high-profile legal drama and tender intimate moments experienced by Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree throughout their battle to ensure that Hester’s pension would be passed to Andree. Hester, an Ocean County police officer for over 20 years, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in October 2004. Andree faced the death of her love, and the potential loss of their home, which she could not afford alone on her auto mechanic’s income.
When local elected officials, the Ocean County Freeholders, denied Hester’s request to transfer benefits in Nov 2005, her predicament attracted intense media attention. Wade traveled from her Brooklyn, New York residence to film the next Freeholders meeting in December. Although the award-winning director of Shelter Dogs had never met Hester she sensed that the elements of high stakes, controversy and a strong female character were perfectly matched to her filmmaking skills and sensibility.
“Laurel had wanted to write a book, and this was her way of doing that,” says Wade, a heterosexual mother of two whom Hester and Andree welcomed into their home during eight weeks of filming. “I had a friendship with them,” she says.
Hester, 49, died on Feb 18, 2006, nearly one month after the Freeholders voted to give Andree the pension benefits. One year later, Governor Jon Corzine invoked the case as he signed civil union legislation for New Jersey.
A winner of the 2007 Sundance Special Jury Prize and other festival awards, Freeheld faces Oscar competition set in Colombia, India and Iraq. The winner will be announced on Feb 24 on ABC.
No matter the award outcome, Freeheld will continue to honor Hester as it raises awareness about the plight of same-sex couples in an election year. The film will be released on DVD in the summer, and Wade is in final negotiations to broadcast it during Pride Month.
“It’s something I promised Laurel Hester I would do,” says Wade. “I would take the film as far as I could take it.”