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With: Alanna Almeda, Charlie T. Deane, Guadencio Fernandez, Greg Letiecq, Martin E. Nohe, Chris Pannell, Elenna Schlossberg, Corey A. Stewart
Written by:
Directed by: Eric Byler, Annabel Park
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 81
Date: 11/15/2009

9500 Liberty (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Liberty' Balance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I have long waited and looked for a way that documentaries could break out of their tired, tired formats, either talking heads 'n' clips, or that old pompous, condescending "this is good for you" tone. Filmmakers Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes, Americanese, Tre) and Annabel Park have done it with their new film 9500 Liberty. In other hands, in other times, it could have been a simple film that followed the democratic process as an anti-immigration bill goes in front of the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia. But Byler and Park saw their film growing organically in a new direction and went with it.

The movie starts with an amazing sequence: Byler and Park are interviewing a local Hispanic man when a white man comes along and begins ranting about how no one speaks English anymore. Rather than ignoring him or cutting him out, Byler and Park began talking to the man, filming the entire exchange. They posted the clip on YouTube, and it went viral, drawing national attention to a local issue.

The filmmakers then interview right-wing blogger Greg Letiecq, who was more or less responsible in whipping up the county into a state of hysteria and getting the anti-immigration bill in front of the Board of Supervisors. His readers regularly claim that they're afraid to go out at night. Letiecq fuels these fears, claiming that many of the immigrants are actually Zapatistas, armed and ready to take over. He also claims that crime is on the rise in William County, when in fact Byler and Park show that it's on the decline.

Eventually, due to pressure, confusion, fear and hysteria, the bill passes, and includes a "probable cause" section that requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect might be illegal. (It could also result in the entire county being sued for racial profiling.) At this point in the film, the Chief of Police Charlie Deane casually begins talking about how troublesome the new law is, which results in angry shouts of "treason" from the righties. This is the last straw for many citizens who finally decide to stand up for what they feel is right.

At this point, the Washington Post asked Byler and Park to write essays on the situation, which they did, and they were also asked to speak at the board meetings. People soon figured out that in all the fighting and frenzy, the filmmakers had gathered the most complete and accurate information around. The filmmakers incorporate these events into the film itself, acknowledging that their presence has subtly changed the course of history. It's as if, two-thirds of the way through the film, the filmmakers stepped out from behind their black curtain and continued the show on stage. This very simple gesture is actually a fairly radical idea; no documentary can be entirely objective, and to admit this on camera is a idea that's all too rare. Most documentaries simply pretend that they are objective.

This is Byler's fourth theatrical film; his previous three were all romantic character studies, with a hint of melodrama. I like them all, and I think he has a genuine touch for emotional behavior and a good eye for composing such behavior. His leap from melodrama to politics may seem huge, but once again his eye for human emotions and behavior is intact (all credit due to Park as well, whose official debut this is). Best of all, is that this never turns into a Republican-bashing film. It's far less interested in getting angry and placing blame than it is in initiating a calm, thoughtful discourse. Remarkably, it demonstrates that while fear politics work very well, the politics of rational people can work just as well.

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