AFFD 2010: 9500 Liberty Review

[Our thanks to Liz Reed from MangaLife.com for this review from the Asian Film Festival of Dallas]

While 9500 Liberty documents an issue that consumed a Virginia county three years ago, the film couldn't be more relevant or provide more forewarning to Arizona's current immigration bill, which passed in April. When Prince William County lawmakers presented an immigration resolution in 2007 bent on deporting illegal aliens from the community using "probable cause," or giving the police the authority to question a person they suspect is undocumented, the community became divided racially, socially, and economically.

Asian-American directors Eric Byler and Annabel Park openly admit in the film that their involvement in the immigration debate goes beyond their role behind the camera, and they never look back, or apologize. While this bias seems to paint the conservative, anti-immigration residents of Manassas, Virginia as the racist villains (especially the film's selection of citizen speakers from town hall meetings: "Remember who was responsible for 9/11. It was the illegals"), chances are you have already picked a side before watching this film. No matter the emotional depictions or "reasoning" from both sides of the debate, 9500 Liberty most likely won't change your opinion on immigration. It will, however, open your eyes to the consequences.

The film starts with a jarring confrontation between an older white man and a group of Latinos of varying age. He accuses the children in the group (some seem younger than ten) of joining gangs and wasting the taxpayers' money on an education they don't deserve. He expresses his anger at hearing Spanish in a grocery store checkout line and how his town has gone downhill, thanks to the "alien invasion."

This uncomfortable, emotional scene accurately depicts the tension, frustration, and misunderstandings that exist between whites and Latinos for the rest of the documentary. Through a timeline of events that surround the passing of the immigration resolution, the violent verbal exchanges between a divided community, the battle to raise taxes to support the resolution, and the eventual foreclosures and social backlash that destroys the community, 9500 Liberty wants you to squirm and think critically about your biases. The first five minutes warns you this will be an emotional ride--you will be yelling at the screen, shaking and/or nodding your head, digging your nails into your palms in frustration and disagreement.

Chilling interviews from victimized Latino community members of all ages, the anti-immigration blogger and "Save Manassas" leader, Greg Letiecq, white protesters against the resolution's destructive impact on their community, and even a former member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors bring a wide variety of perspectives to the immigration debate, while humanizing the madness behind all the town hall meetings, protests, and blog posts. A disturbing scene of a young boy translating his parents' thoughts in front of a packed town hall meeting made me wonder how it could go this far--How could we involve these innocent children, who hardly understand the meaning of prejudice and hate?

What's even more intriguing about this documentary was its viral status on Youtube during the heat of the debates in 2008. Park and Byler said they would waste no time getting the "truth" out in the open and immediately began posting clips from the town hall meetings and their exclusive interviews. In the film, Park says putting the clips on Youtube helped open the debate to a public forum, where the voiceless could post their comments, thoughts, and concerns to the masses. While it's questionable how much this encouraged constructive debate more than hateful remarks, Byler and Park's use of technology (much like the angry bloggers of Prince William County) to bring national attention to a growing issue seems to foreshadow the potential of social networking and political activism in the coming years.

If I have a complaint about 9500 Liberty is the visual repetitiveness: landscape, town hall meeting, interview, repeat. Although the film is only 85 minutes, I felt like I was watching a Lord of the Rings trilogy of people complaining about the same things, in the same place, over and over. I'm sure when broken into weekly 10 minute segments on Youtube, the documentary is much more engaging and fresh. But as a feature length film, the directors rehash tedious interviews and clips from town hall meetings to illustrate months of legislation debate--something I thought only C-SPAN could do.

Nonetheless, 9500 Liberty's analysis of the power of an individual, a blog, a community, a nation to make or break immigration policy creates a very contemporary look into what may happen with Arizona's current legislation. The film shows as many perspectives as it can to convince you to rethink "right" and "wrong," whether that appeals to your emotional or financial mindset. After seeing the dehumanizing and economic consequences of immigration policy demonstrated in Prince William County and in this film, it's not too wild to think that what's on screen could influence a larger movement for immigration reform in the not-too-distant future.

9500 Liberty screens July 28th at 7:30 at the Landmark Magnolia as part of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. You can find more details here

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