9500 Liberty arrives at the Asian American International Film Festival having already amassed many rave reviews, and its spotlight on the illegal immigration debate is especially timely given recent legislation in Arizona. The documentary, named after a Virginia home street address hosting a protest wall, follows a county in Virginia that in 2008 enacted a law requiring police officers to question anyone with "probable cause" to be an undocumented immigrant (sound familiar?).
The film follows all the major players from the beginning, from fierce debate before legislation was passed, to the damaging after-effects of the law towards all minorities and the local community, to how various members of the community were able to fight back against the will of politically ambitious politicians and xenophobic extremists. The documentary is a ground-level view of real activism in action, on the streets, in government chambers, and on the internet. The role of the internet was especially interesting, with the film demonstrating the immense power certain bloggers had on both sides of the debate in influencing citizens and politicians. While the entire situation unfolded, Annabel Park and Eric Byler were innovative in broadcasting clips and events in a real-time, interactive documentary format, on YouTube.
Some noteworthy aspects of the film include the opening scene, in which viewers are immediately exposed to bare, unscripted racism and ignorant bigotry by a local resident. There are clear parallels between this Virginia county legislation and the current Arizona anti-immigration law. Many similar defenses of the Arizona law were voiced in the documentary, like the issue of "probable cause", which the film shows can easily lead to bogus reasons to stop any people of color. One fact I took issue with was the oft-mentioned lie about increased immigration associated with increased violent crime, when the statistics in that Virginia county (or Arizona for that matter) actually show the opposite.
I had been familiar with Eric Byler's prior fictional films (Charlotte Sometimes, Americanese), but more recently he and Annabel Park have been involved with significant political activism. Aside from this documentary, they've been active with congressional resolutions concerning comfort women, and in creating pivotal media that helped swing the Virginia Senate race for Jim Webb. Some of you may also know of Park as founder of the Coffee Party movement, a counter to the Tea Party movement.
With 9500 Liberty, Byler and Park have produced a historically enduring and relevant documentary. This immigration issue has large ramifications for what it even means to be American. 9500 Liberty is worth checking out, and the documentary helps explain why President Obama specifically chose Prince William County in Virginia to give his final speech on the night before the 2008 presidential election. Park will be there for Q&A after the documentary's screening.