Review: 9500 Liberty


9500 Liberty

In a way, it's sad that 9500 Liberty is such a timely and relevant documentary.

Opening at the Dobie tomorrow, the film chronicles a fierce and divisive immigration battle in Prince William County, Virginia, where the county board of supervisors enacted a law requiring police officers to question anyone they have "probable cause" to suspect is an undocumented immigrant. The Virginia law took effect in 2008, but the recent enacting of a similar law in Arizona gives 9500 Liberty a painful immediacy. The movie is a powerful statement about the continuing us-versus-them fight over our nation's immigration policies.

As America's demographic makeup rapidly changes, the recent history of Prince William County is increasingly familiar. For generations, the county had been a mostly white, mostly conservative semi-rural enclave. The booming economy of the past two decades brought a rapidly expanding population to the area, including many Latino immigrants seeking jobs in construction and service industries. The longtime residents never openly welcomed the immigrants (many of whom were undocumented), but for many years the two groups managed to coexist as neighbors, if not as friends.

The grudging peace ended when rabidly anti-immigrant blogger Greg Letiecq and his like-minded neighbors formed Help Save Manassas, a grassroots group that lobbied (actually, intimidated) the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to enact the aforementioned anti-immigrant law. As expected, the proposed law was at once heralded and vilified. The immigrants and their supporters quickly organized an effective resistance, creating a showdown as the county officials passed the law and then were forced into a second and far more difficult vote to fund its enforcement.

The title 9500 Liberty refers to the address of a Manassas property owned by Gaudencio Fernandez, a Mexican immigrant and U.S. citizen. Fernandez covered one wall of a burned-out rental house on the property with a series of banners protesting the new law. The often-vandalized banners became symbolic flashpoints in a bitter clash fueled by racism, fear and ulterior political motives.

Beyond the law's direct effect on the immigrants' lives, it also had a devastating economic impact. Feeling unwelcome and fearful of being deported, many immigrants stopped shopping at local businesses or left town altogether; combined with the national economic downturn in 2008, this created a perfect economic storm that caused property values to plunge and many local businesses to close.

The Prince William County battle was fought on three fronts: the streets, the halls of government and the Internet. Covering the hateful festivities were filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park (co-founder of the Coffee Party movement), who taped countless hours of impassioned hearing testimony and shouting matches in the streets of Manassas. 9500 Liberty began life when Byler and Park posted some of the footage on YouTube and created a website with background information and opportunities for feedback and discussion. The often brutal and outrageous clips quickly became an Internet phenomenon, appearing on countless websites and generating histrionic comments from viewers and bloggers on all sides of the issue. Byler and Park then combined the clips with interviews and background footage, creating an equally brutal and outrageous documentary.

Fortunately, 9500 Liberty avoids an all-too-common mistake in agitprop documentaries: sacrificing good filmmaking in favor of hammering home a political message. The film is an unapologetic polemic -- it's obvious that Byler and Park's sympathies lie with the immigrants (and, by extension, with the larger notion that we're all entitled to the same civil rights). But far beyond its message, 9500 Liberty is a well made, engaging example of the documentary form, a film in which compelling storytelling transcends politics. The story unfolds with plenty of dramatic tension, presenting an ever-expanding arena of political machinations, shifting alliances, and surprising revelations about the parties involved.  Some scenes are true nail-biters, and the story could be adapted easily for a fine narrative film.

The major players in this political drama aren't one-dimensional props, shown in all their horrifically racist or heroically humanitarian glory to further the filmmakers' political agenda. No, they're actual human beings with complex internal and external motivations. Letiecq may post rancid and vile commentary on his horrifyingly racist blog, but his vitriol is an obvious symptom of a deeply troubled, fearful psyche. The film stops short of really humanizing him, but we do wonder what created such a monster. (Other players -- such as the pandering, opportunistic board chairman, Corey Stewart -- probably deserve no humanizing or sympathy and get none in the film.)

In a particularly enraging scene, the eight board members (including several relatively liberal Democrats) vote unanimously to pass the obviously racially biased law. The film could have simply painted them as racists or cowards, but instead it delves into the complex political variables (among them election-year jitters and procedural limitations) that shaped their votes. It also gives them a fair-minded shot at personal and political redemption.

9500 Liberty isn't much to look at; shot entirely in journalistic style on slightly grainy digital video, often using only available light, it lacks any real visual flair. But the tight editing, compelling dramatic arc, and thoroughly human treatment of its subjects make it a very moving and provocative study of how our national immigration policy affects all of us. As a grassroots activist and frequent visitor to Austin City Hall, I also found 9500 Liberty to be an astute take on the often ugly and dispiriting business of municipal politics.

There is always hope that years from now, films like 9500 Liberty won't be so relevant to our times. We shall see.

Austin Connections: Byler's debut feature, Charlotte Sometimes, won the Audience Award at the 2002 SXSW Film Festival. His second feature, Americanese, won the Audience Award and Special Jury Award at the 2006 SXSW Film Festival.

Byler will be at the 7 pm screening of 9500 Liberty on Friday, June 4 at the Dobie. Keep an eye out for Debbie Cerda's interview with him on Slackerwood later this week.