Correction to This Article
A Dec. 28 Style article incorrectly attributed the plot of director Eric Byler's film 'Americanese' to another of his films, 'Tre.' It is in 'Americanese' that an interracial couple wrestle with their buried prejudices when their daughter brings home an African American fiance.

'Disoriented' Filmmaker Delves Inside The Outsider

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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

His was a childhood spent on racial and cultural fault lines: Chinese and Caucasian. Honolulu and Burke, Va. Little League champ and book grunt.

Filmmaker Eric Byler grew up straddling the divide between this and that, being neither/nor, but either and or. Getting hassled on the playground in Virginia for being Asian. And then, later on, after his dad was transferred to Hawaii, getting harassed around the jungle gym because he wasn't Asian enough.

Although his experience isn't quite that of the two protagonists in his latest film, "Independent Lens: My Life Disoriented" -- i.e., he's not a high school girl -- Byler, 34, is all too familiar with the niggling issues of angst that the characters deal with. ("My Life Disoriented" will air on Channel 26 at 1 a.m. tomorrow.)

High school flicks, he says, are the perfect allegory for those who have found themselves between those social tectonic plates.

"As a minority," Byler says from his home in Los Angeles, "it's a very strong metaphor. You replace the Lindsay Lohan [character in 'Mean Girls' ] with a person of color. . . . It's about how you cope with isolation."

Since graduating from Wesleyan University, he's carved out a career by exploring those feelings of disconnection, examining the lives of Asian Americans and Hapas in small, independent films such as the award-winning "Charlotte Sometimes" (2002) and "AMERICANese" (2006), which featured Joan Chen and drew critical praise on the festival circuit. (Another film, "Tre," about an interracial couple wrestling with their buried prejudices when their Hapa daughter brings home an African American fiance, will be released next year.)

"As a mixed-race person, I am that cultural fault line," he says. "A lot of Asian filmmakers starting out, their movies are revenge for the movies that came before. But you really are getting into the same stereotypes. It's limiting. It won't be interesting to anyone who doesn't share that same agenda."

So when actress Di Quon ("Pulse") approached him two years ago, through a mutual friend, about writing and directing a film where she'd finally get a chance to be front and center rather than the dispensable Asian sidekick, Byler was intrigued.

Typically he writes and directs, but in this instance, his juggling of several projects -- and the need for a feminine perspective -- kept him from taking on writing duties. Instead, he tapped Claire Yorita Lee, an unproduced writer of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, to pen the 30-minute film, which follows two sisters as they move from their familiar San Francisco high school to a virtually all-white school in Bakersfield, a city with a small-town feel. (The movie was first shot in late 2004, and after the filmmakers obtained grant money from an arts organization, they went back and shot more footage early this year.)

With "My Life Disoriented," they strove to turn the traditional notions of ethnicity upside down, exploring "racism, tokenism, the choices you make when you're in a hostile environment," Byler says. There's the mixed-race cousin, who just happens to be a Goth freak. There's also Kimberlee, who'll do just about anything to fit in with the mean girls at her new school -- even ditching the Asian guys who befriended her when she wandered around, lost on the first day of school.

Back home, she tells a new friend, "I didn't feel Asian enough."

"You won't have that problem here," the friend says.

Byler delights in playing with subtleties, noodling with nuance until a character rings true.

"He really gets his hands into the script," Yorita Lee says. "He likes to control everything -- in a good way, in a way that you trust him, that you know it's going to end up really good. It puts a lot of pressure on him. . . . He's definitely a perfectionist."

For now, Byler is turning that perfectionist's eye toward politics. He became involved this year with James Webb's Senate campaign, doing community outreach work with Virginia's Asian community in the wake of Sen. George Allen's infamous "macaca" incident. He traveled through the state, video camera in hand, shooting everything and anything encountered along the campaign trail. Now he's working on turning that footage into a full-length documentary.

Next on his plate: a move back to Virginia, to pursue community activism.

"Art before agenda" used to be one of Byler's mantras. Now, he's not so sure.

"My work has always dealt with progressive issues," he says. "But that's a very slow way to effect change."

"I've accomplished some things as a filmmaker, living in Los Angeles," Byler says. "But the most important thing I've ever done was handing someone a [political] flier in their own language and seeing that light bulb go off in their heads. . . . I want to be a part of that. It's exciting."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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