SOMEWHERE BETWEEN attending the Los Angeles premiere of his latest film, Tre, and its opening a week later in Chicago, filmmaker Eric Byler managed to fit in hours of poll watching and Super Tuesday campaigning for Barack Obama.
Byler's been scuttling from city to city to promote his new film and his politics, two passions that might not seem to have much in common, but stand for something that the 36-year-old filmmaker-turned-activist strongly believes in: fair representation.
"I consider my political activism an extension of my narrative work," says Byler in a phone interview. "In cinema, as in politics, if you haven't been getting the representation that you feel you deserve, it's incumbent upon you to develop the tools to take action."
And with Tre, the semi-sequel to his breakout film, Charlotte Sometimes, he does just that. Featuring two hapa characters, Tre (Daniel Cariaga) and Kakela (Kimberly-Rose Wolter), as the leads in a romantic drama, Byler successfully manages to center the story on two mixedrace Asian American characters without brandishing ethnicity.
"In my movies, people approach their ethnicity the way they approach it in real life," says Byler, who identifies as hapa (his mother is Chinese American and his father is white). "These are real people who happen to be ethnic-the word ethnic is never mentioned in Tre-and if you're hapa and watching this movie there is some truth to the sort of indescribable curiosity that the two hapa characters have about one another."
While Byler's narrative films tend to focus on the micro, examining and reexamining the nuances of human relationships, his current crop of work has turned toward the macro, encouraging a broader sort of introspection about the human condition.
Over the past year, he has become deeply involved in campaigning for Obama. Byer has created video clips featuring prominent members of the Asian American community, such as actress Kelly Hu and Survivor winner YuI Kwon, voicing their support for the Democratic presidential candidate.
"In both cases-political activism and filmmaking-what motivates me and many people in the Asian American arts community is that we're unhappy with the sort of representation we're getting," Byler says.
While CNN broadcast a segment in February that painted Asian American voters as racist and politically ignorant, Byler's clips feature more than a few Asian Americans who have articulate, wellformed opinions.
Along with fellow filmmakers and activists Annabel Park and Jeff Mann, Byler has also embarked on a new project, 9500 Liberty, an "interactive documentary" posted on YouTube that allows viewers to comment and respond to their work. The project focuses on the heated debate over immigration in Prince William County, VA, where Byler grew up. The series explores the angry reactions of many longtime residents to a recent influx of Latino immigrants.
"A lot of families are dealing with these changes and are having trouble adjusting," says Park, who conceived the idea for 9500 Liberty with Byler in August. "I don't think people are as anti-immigrant as much as they are anti-change."
9500 Liberty has been viewed more than 50,000, attracted media coverage from mainstream outlets like The Washington Post, France's Le Monde and Japan's broadcasting company NHK, and a few death threats.
Park and Byler, who've been dating since late 2006, are equally passionate about educating the public about this country's immigration issues. The pair has worked on a variety of other efforts together, starting with the Real Virginians for Webb campaign, which Park says "was really our first date. We had such an amazing adventure during the campaign that we decided to just continue the date and it continues to be an adventure."
This swirl of activism and filmmaking has Byler dashing all over the country, and it's easy to see why he finds himself spread a little thin these days.
"Sometimes I wish I could go back to just being an artist," said Byler, who laments that working on post-production for Tre has taken time away from his political activism. "But once you've experienced the sense of empowerment knowing that your voice alone can make such a big difference, I don't think I can go back to just being an artist."
Elaine Low is a writer and non-profiteer currently based in Chicago.
Chicago-based writer ELAINE LOW was pleased to finally see some Asian Americans (who weren't Norman Hsu) representing in the political blogosphere of late. Interviewing filmmaker and activist Eric Byler only confirmed her belief that strong, informed Asian American voices, regardless of political inclination, need to be heard through mainstream channels more often-even if that channel is YouTube.