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‘9500 Liberty’: Documenting the Immigration Debate
Posted on Jun 30, 2010
By Emily Wilson
The new documentary “9500 Liberty” is about the struggle over a law requiring police to question anyone they have probable cause to believe is undocumented. This premise may sound awfully familiar, but the film isn’t about SB 1070, the controversial immigration law recently adopted in Arizona; rather, it’s about a 2007 resolution in Prince William County, Va.
Annabel Park and Eric Byler, the directors of the movie, posted footage of the debates over the resolution on YouTube, which drew tens of thousands of hits in just days. The two have a lot of experience with new media and civic engagement. They also created a website, Real Virginias for Webb, to support Jim Webb after his opponent, George Allen, used the term macaca when talking about an Indian, and they established the 121 Coalition to support passage of U.S. House Resolution 121, known as the “comfort women” resolution. Byler has made several feature films, including “Charlotte Sometimes,” and he and Park are co-founders of the Coffee Party USA, a political action group. Truthdig contributor Emily Wilson talked with them when they were in San Francisco for the opening of their film.
Emily Wilson: In the opening scene of the documentary you have a man yelling at a group of immigrants, telling them to learn English. Why did you choose to begin with that?
Annabel Park: We talked about that a lot. It kind of embodied so many components of the debate and the story, not only because it’s a very dramatic argument where the division is very clear, partly because there’s a fence. You have one person on one side of the fence and a group of people on the other side of the fence, and the group had this big sign. They were gathering in front of a sign that said “Stop your racism against Hispanics,” and it was a sign that a Mexican-American man had put up on one part of his wall. It was a house that had burned down, and he left this one wall and put up a sign to protest. We were there filming the immigrants when this man came over and started yelling at them saying, “Learn how to speak English,” “You don’t belong here,” that kind of thing. It caught us by surprise, and we ended up becoming involved in that discussion. I started talking to him, saying, “Why are you upset?” and trying to get him to understand what their situation is. And I put my hand out to shake his hand, and he grabbed my hand and started really talking to me. And this wasn’t in the film, but we had a long discussion of the Asians who came here before the Hispanics.
The idea for me was we have this fence, and the fence itself made the guy feel safe about actually screaming. I tried to imagine the whole scene without the fence there and he’s just approaching them. I don’t think he would have used that level of tone. I feel like in many ways the solution to what we have through this polarized situation is to get rid of the fence, literally and figuratively, so we see each other as equals and human beings. My hope is that with the film we can start to get rid of the fence and help people to engage with each other, understand one another, and I think we’ve had some success so far. We showed the film in Arizona, and I certainly felt that people were ready to have dialogue after watching the film.
EW: How did people respond to the film in Arizona? What was the reaction like?
AP: The response was overwhelmingly positive. We did a bunch of Q&As and we had a couple of people say “Well, illegal is illegal”—that type of rhetoric. But on the whole, people wanted to talk. And I think they were ready to go beyond “Illegal is illegal” and “You’re separating families,” to let’s look at the details of this thing. How is it really going to affect us? What does it really mean? That’s what we’re hoping to do nationally.
Eric Byler: There’s a direct parallel with what happened in Arizona because the law was written by the same anti-immigration law firm in D.C. So the people you meet in the middle of the film in that hearing are the ones who are behind SB 1070. It’s a kind of boilerplate of laws that are designed to divide the community, but it’s also a political strategy because it always happens right before an election. There’s really three pieces. First, an undocumented immigrant commits a crime that’s easy to exploit in the headlines.
AP: Or they think it was an undocumented immigrant.
EB: Oh yeah, in the case of the rancher, they don’t know who killed him, but they found footprints leading to the south, so they know for sure it was an undocumented immigrant because you can tell by their footprints. So they sensationalize the myth that undocumented immigrants are responsible for crime and then politicians who are in need of an issue and then comes the legislation. So what normally happens is the legislation is mostly just a political football, it’s for the election. It’s not really for the sake of policy.
EW: Why did you put what you were filming up on YouTube?
AP: I think after the first day of shooting I felt like we could easily do a feature film, but I think it wasn’t until we started realizing how misinformed people were about this issue that we felt the need to start sharing it because it would just be irresponsible not to. I mean if you have all this information and people are trying to make decisions on misinformation do you just do nothing? I’m hoping more filmmakers will do the same thing. They’re doing very timely documentaries, but it takes a year or more to actually share it with the world.
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