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Raw Look at Immigration Crucible
Pr. William Web Serial Aims to Foster a Deeper, More Civil Discourse

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

In one video, a man furious about hearing Spanish at a hardware store berates a group of Latino families with a lecture on American history, telling them "my ancestors were here before the Constitution." A little girl shyly reminds him: "The Indians were here before the Americans."

In another clip, a woman asks county officials not to forget "who was responsible for 9/11 -- illegals," while a man tells them, "Don't confuse the 9/11 with the 7-Eleven. . . . The guys at the 7-Eleven just want to work."

Other scenes show worried, frustrated residents denouncing a "foreign invasion" and warning of "civil war," to which one scowling young man taunts: "Bring it."

The illegal-immigration clash that has consumed Prince William County neighborhoods and government halls is now showing up in serial form on YouTube, archived and freely available in all its raw intensity.

The footage, posted by local filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler, is neither pretty nor polished. But the couple adds a chapter nearly every day, offering all sides a chance to be seen and heard, as well as a forum for well-mannered debate to those willing to engage in it.

Park and Byler describe their project as an interactive documentary that aims to defuse tensions and explore the complexity of the issue. Their clips are loaded with the unfiltered emotions that have flooded county streets and county politics, but the filmmakers allow the material to stand on its own, without narration or commentary. A more complete documentary might come later, they say, but for now their goal is to edit and upload the footage as fast as possible to their site, http://www.youtube.com/9500Liberty.

"What you normally do is shoot, then edit, then enter film festivals," said Byler, 35, a Gainesville resident. "On that trajectory, people would see this film for the first time next summer. That's a long time to wait. If the movie is meant to create dialogue, why release it after things may have already shifted?"

With little more than a basic video camera and laptop computers, Byler, Park and a third partner, Jeff Man, have spent the past few months filming Prince William's efforts to enact the region's toughest measures targeting illegal immigrants. Before the county supervisors voted last week to cut off certain services to illegal immigrants and increase immigration enforcement by the police, Byler and Park recorded the session of emotional public testimony, which lasted more than 12 hours.

Excerpts of the testimony have been posted in installments on their site, along with their most-viewed clip, set at the so-called Liberty Wall in Manassas, which has been viewed more than 38,000 times.

The five-minute video tracks the fate of a large banner in Manassas that reads "Stop Your Racism to Hispanics" and hangs from the last wall of a recently demolished house at 9500 Liberty St. -- "at the intersection of Liberty and Prince William Street," the filmmakers note. The banner has been a symbol of the county's tension, as well as a target for it, having survived a dud Molotov cocktail attack only to later be ripped in half by vandals.

"People are writing to us and saying, 'What can we do?' " Park said. "They want to get involved."

Park, 39, was born in Korea but grew up in Houston and Rockville. Before Prince William became a flashpoint for the nation's immigration debate, she led a successful campaign for a U.S. House resolution urging Japan to apologize for the sexual enslavement of "comfort women" during World War II.

Since then, Park said she has declined several job offers from lobbying groups, opting instead to follow Prince William's rocky effort to rid its communities of illegal immigrants. Park said she and Byler, as Asian Americans, are able to bridge the conflict's undercurrent of antagonism between whites and Hispanics.

"We went into this feeling it was about election-year politics and racism," she said. "But the more we learn about it, the more we see how multifaceted it is."

In one video viewed 26,000 times in its first week, a group of Latino children run and play outside the chambers of the Board of County Supervisors, seemingly oblivious to the charged debate unfolding indoors. A Woodbridge high school teacher cautions the board's chairman, Corey A. Stewart (R): "The very people you are trying to oppress today, their children may rise up tomorrow and stand in judgment of you."

For Byler, an independent director whose 2002 film "Charlotte Sometimes" was hailed as a "breakthrough for Asian American filmmaking" by critic Roger Ebert, the roots of the 9500 Liberty project trace to George Allen's calling an Indian American "macaca" last summer.

Byler, the son of a white U.S. Army officer and a Chinese American mother, spent much of his childhood in Burke. He said he was teased often about his appearance.

"Watching George Allen look into the camera and point and say you are not the real Virginia, the real Virginia is the people who are laughing with me at you, reminded me of this whole thing that was never resolved," Byler said.

"I've always been sensitive to situations where people are being singled out."

After the macaca incident, Byler and Park moved back to Virginia from Los Angeles and volunteered for Democrat James Webb's Senate campaign against Allen, helping to raise money among Asian Americans.

Although they worked on a Democratic campaign and their video clips show a sympathy for Latino immigrants' fears about racism and discrimination, Byler and Park have sought to capture all sides of the debate on illegal immigration. One of their most-viewed videos shows a meeting of the anti-illegal immigrant group Help Save Manassas, and others include interviews with Stewart, whose reelection campaign slogan is "Fighting illegal immigration."

"They're really trying to do a service," said George Taplin, director of the Virginia chapter of the anti-illegal immigrant group Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, who appears in two videos about the now-defunct Herndon day-laborer center. Taplin praised the videos' fairness but said he thought the couple's editorial balance was missing in their administration of viewer comments on their YouTube page.

"What I'm seeing as far as the reaction is rhetoric and people calling each other names. That's not going to help anything," Taplin said. "You don't get dialogue going by fanning hatred and discontent."

Like Taplin, some viewers have accused Byler and Park of censorship for rejecting their comments on the 9500 Liberty page. Byler and Park maintain that they are trying to keep the discussion free of hate speech or racism, especially as viewings of their videos have increased and comments have begun arriving from viewers elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

"We don't approve the ones that are going to lead to violence," Byler said. Some of the hate-filled diatribes that arrived in the past week were so disturbing that they notified federal authorities, he said.

Byler says that viewers need to watch several of the videos to understand the larger picture of Prince William's illegal-immigration debate. The clips have appeared on blogs and elicited hundreds of comments. But despite the couple's efforts at peacemaking, there is little sign of reconciliation in their videos, though no shortage of resentment, fear and bitterness.

Still, Park said she is not discouraged.

"I see a lot of hope in this," she said. "Ultimately, the only way to heal the community is to work together to end the fighting and to collaborate on solutions that address the real grievances people have."

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