‘9500 Liberty’ Marks a New Direction for Eric Byler

©2009 “9500 Liberty”

The new documentary “9500 Liberty,” directed and produced by Annabel Park, a celebrated playwright and grassroots organizer, and Eric Byler, director of indie hits, including “Charlotte Sometimes” and “Americanese,” is a departure from the filmmaker’s previous works. Throughout his career, Byler created narrative works that dealt with race and human relationships in subtle and complex ways, making him an influential filmmaker in Asian American cinema. Today, however, he says his goal is not to make a difference in cinema, but in the larger world, and “9500 Liberty” represents his new path.

“There are young people currently making those kinds of films,” Byler explained, “but I really feel that [Park] and I have an opportunity to do something that not many people can.”

“9500 Liberty” tells the story of a law in Prince William Country, Va. that requires police to question anyone they suspect of being undocumented. The law — similar to the controversial new Arizona law and written and supported in part by the same national organizations, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI)  —  made Manassas, Va. ground zero for the battle around immigration reform. The film follows those who fought for and against it, the tactics they used and the effect its implementation had on their lives.

Byler was first inspired to pursue this new direction in 2006 when he saw nationally famous footage of Virginia Sen. George Allen calling a dark-skinned Asian American man “macaca” and welcoming him “to America and the real world of Virginia” in front of a crowd of supporters. Having grown up partially in Virginia, less than 20 miles from Manassas, the incident struck a chord with Byler. Though he experienced some racial discrimination during his youth, Byler did not believe racism reflected the “real Virginia,” which he says has become increasingly diverse.

“Are people of color in Virginia less ‘real’ than white folks?” Byler wrote in an op-ed at the time. “To suggest as much is a profound insult to any person of color and any person who believes in an America that is based on equality.”

The directors began volunteering for Allen’s opponent, Jim Webb, targeting their outreach efforts at young Asian Pacific Islanders deemed the least likely group to vote. They created “Real Virginians for Webb,” with Byler shooting endorsement videos featuring the likes of “Lost” star Daniel Dae Kim. The pair also fundraised and Park was able to get the money earmarked for ads targeted at Asian Americans.

“Once you realize you can have an impact, you realize it’s really incumbent on you to do so,” Byler explained.

The pair continued to remain active in politics, creating videos and participating in events supporting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Park was the national coordinator for the 121 coalition, organizing a grassroots effort to successfully pass U.S. House Resolution 121, also known as the “Comfort Women Resolution.”

When the resolution allowing police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected of being undocumented was proposed in Prince William County, Park and Byler began to chronicle the battle between the county’s Latino population and the anti-undocumented immigrant movement, “Help Save Manassas.”

Rather than waiting to release their footage as a feature-length film, Byler and Park wanted to make an impact and began to release clips as they were shot from “9500 Liberty” (named for the address of a building that had burned down and was owned by Gaudencio Fernandez, a naturalized immigrant and father of three, who left a single wall facing the center of the town standing and used it as sort of a billboard, painting messages opposing the county’s anti-immigrant resolution).

Through Byler’s YouTube channel they released footage of people on both sides of the debate without narration, hoping to enable dialogue on the subject.

“The tactics the [anti-immigrant group] was using really mobilizes people who thrive on conflict and scares away people who are moderate and forward-looking,” Byler explained. “We didn’t want to be a part of that cacophony of voices.”

In particular, blogger Greg Letiecq, the president of “Help Save Manassas,” featured prominently in the film, mobilized around inflammatory posts, in which he called undocumented children in public schools parasites, and selectively censored user comments, but allowed posts such as “maybe this raid is having an effect… at the K-6 bus-stop… the usual suspects were missing, not a brown face.”

Byler believes race was a factor in the fear-mongering the issue brought out.

“A lot of it is the century-old myth that crime and skin color are inherently related,” he said, explaining that the demographics in Virginia are shifting rapidly and the emergence of a new, sizable population of people of color is making some long-time residents uncomfortable.

“We are inclined to believe the worst about people who are least familiar. It was a lot of slander against an innocent group of people… they were alleging that [undocumented immigrants] were causing a rise in crime and disease and creating an unprecedented tax burden… None of which is true,” Byler added. “It wasn’t fact based… [those who use scare tactics] are not looking for info, they’re looking for ammo.”

With the “9500 Liberty” site on YouTube, Park and Byler hoped to create a place where people could get informed and discuss openly, without fear of being censored or attacked. They set about creating an innovative “interactive documentary” in which viewers were free to post their own comments, leads and video responses, many of which Byler and Park then followed up on.

The “9500 Liberty” page made YouTube’s weekly top 20 list, with one clip in particular garnering 40,000 views in two days.

While Byler and Park are firmly against the resolution, the film and YouTube site treated the argument for the law with respect and humanized those who supported it.

“We wanted to shift the discourse away from a framework of ‘there are only two sides, you have to pick one and start attacking the other.’ ”

The desire stems in part from his own multiracial background and the evolution of his political thought over his life.

“Growing up as a biracial kid in Virginia and Hawai‘i, I never felt comfortable ‘choosing a side,’ ” Byler explained. Additionally, he grew up with a father who was a Reagan Republican.

“I first became politically aware during [George H.W. Bush’s] presidency and, at the time, I liked him because my dad liked him, the way I liked the Dodgers because my dad liked the Dodgers.”

His earliest memories of political thought were his father’s mutterings about liberals and arguments about race between his white American father and Chinese American mother While Byler patterned his attitudes on his father, in college he felt he needed “substance behind those attitudes.”

“I started reading… learning the facts,” Byler recalled, “and my beliefs began to change.”

He began to disagree with many Republican ideas, but more than ideology, he was put off by the party’s tactics, particularly during the Clinton impeachment and the run-up to the Iraq War.

Now a participant in the debates, Byler — along with Park and the opponents of the resolution who appear in documentary — have been targeted by the very tactics he finds so objectionable. They have received hateful comments, including death threats. Some were so disturbing that they notified federal authorities.

“I would say many of us have a degree of post-traumatic stress,” Byler said. “And that’s why intimidation tactics and organizing around hatred are so popular… However, if you’re already living in a climate of intolerance, where intimidation tactics are already being used against you and vigilantes are attacking your police chief, then you’re already terrified.”

Despite the stress Park and Byler have incurred, and the lack of any financial compensation (all of their political efforts have been volunteer and the “9500 Liberty” documentary was funded by the money Byler made from narrative films), the filmmakers are committed to their course. Park is producing a film about the “Comfort Women” resolution and she and Byler founded the national “Coffee Party USA,” a volunteer organization created to counter the rhetoric of the Tea Party.

“There is more at stake today than just the issues I explored [in my narrative films],” Byler says. “That’s where I want to use my abilities as a storyteller.”

“9500 Liberty” is playing at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College Ave. (at Ashby) in Berkeley, and the Landmark Theatres Lumiere, located at 1572 California St. (at Polk) in San Francisco through June 16. For additional screenings, visit http://www.9500liberty.com/screenings.html. The interactive documentary is available online at http://www.youtube.com/user/9500Liberty.

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