Skip to content

9500 Liberty

Controversy should focus on needs of the subjects of immigration film, not those of the filmmakers

by Eric Byler

The most important thing to say about the filmmaking & immigration controversy amplified in today’s article by Paloma Esquivel of the Los Angeles Times is that this video is great! My Asian Americana serves as an outstanding companion to the 2006 PBS/Independent Lens documentary Sentenced Home by David Grabias and Nicole Newnham.  Both films focus on the tragedy of Cambodian Americans who were deported due to knee-jerk changes to immigration laws in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

Although I have concerns about the authenticity of the marketing approach the filmmakers have chosen in recent weeks — they accuse the White House of a “lack of transparency” and dishonor with respect to a web video contest for which they were selected as finalists but not winners —  I do sympathize with them.  When you put your heart and soul into something, and when it is about a cause you care about deeply, there will be emotions flowing inside you that can sometimes be misdirected.

With the record number of deportations we’ve seen during the Obama administration, there is some truth to the fact that many in the immigrant community aren’t really sure that the President is on their side. While White House officials will be quick to remind us that President Obama has advanced a number of administrative measures on immigration, including detention reforms, and a case-by-case review of all deportations, you can count me among the many who are disappointed that the White House was not able or willing to embolden Congress to take on the anti-immigrant lobby in the first 100 days of the administration (before the Tea Party narrative took root on cable news, making any issue involving race terrifying for leaders on both sides of the aisle).

But let’s get down to the truth of the matter.

The contest rules did NOT explicitly say that the number of views received by the finalists would determine the winners.  It was clearly stated that not all the finalists would be invited to the White House.  As with any contest, not all finalists are guaranteed to be declared winners.

This quote from a White House email sent to the finalists puts a lot of focus on the number of views:  “As you know, the voting period of the challenge has now concluded. We will be getting an assessment of the vote count by next week and making a determination of how to proceed. We will send you an update as soon as this is ready.”

But if you read it carefully, and in context, it’s clear that the number of views is not the only criteria.  So, what we have here is a case where a film was not selected, and someone on the production team decided that framing the story of their disappointment in an aggressive and politically-charged way would essentially compensate for the publicity that they WOULD HAVE gotten had they been selected.  Also, taking a swipe at the administration probably provided a measure of emotional release.

It seems rather ludicrous to claim that the White House is seeking to suppress the issues raised by the film when indeed it was chosen out of 200 to be presented to the public on their website as a finalist.  It’s understandable, for reasons I stated above, that the filmmakers would choose this line of attack (that the administration does not want to deal with our broken immigration system) because (a) it assumes that the film could not have been excluded from the winners on the merits and (b) it offers the best chance of getting publicity.

If the filmmakers have been deliberately dishonest in expressing their disappointment and ambition through pushing this story, then what we have is a crime of passion.  It is the sort of passion that comes about when you pour your heart into a work of art in which you are deeply proud, and this passion is compounded, justifiably, because it is inspired by an important cause that needs to be addressed.

In my view, the best solution for all parties would be one that focuses on justice for the subjects of the piece, rather than for the makers of it.  For those of us who care about this cause, building up controversy over a contest, and the question of whether all finalists were entitled to be declared winners, will simply call more attention to the filmmakers’ aggressive attempts to gain publicity. This makes the filmmakers look bad, and undermines journalists and advocates who decide to run with a story that, at its heart, is simply not accurate. Meanwhile, I hope that the administration will choose not to respond to the filmmakers’ tactics and instead respond to the important cause that inspired this film in the first place.

The filmmakers may have stretched the truth in order to raise awareness for this cause, but let’s remember the subjects of the film have done nothing wrong at all.  They are people who have been victimized by a post-9/11 hysteria — and political opportunism — that fouled up our immigration system in countless ways, many of which can never be made right.  But the injustice brought upon these young Americans arbitrarily deported to a country they barely know can be made right. All we have to do is bring them home.

If the filmmakers are indeed, as I expect, doing all this for the right reasons, justice for the subjects of their film will mean more to them than an apology or an award or whatever it is that might address their grievances as competitors in a contest that they nearly won but didn’t.  It’s time for a beer summit for the Sentenced Home community, their advocates, and people inside the government who want to enforce our existing laws in a way that is just, and, fix our existing laws so that they serve the cause of justice and the cause of our nation.

In the coming years, we have an opportunity to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would address the Sentenced Home issue, and many other injustices that hurt immigrant families, hurt our economy, and hurt our country.  As Mitt Romney courts Marco Rubio for the Vice Presidential nod, and as Rubio and others formulate a GOP version of the DREAM Act, it’s clear that Republicans are feeling some buyer’s remorse with regard to the anti-Hispanic electioneering we saw during each of the past two presidential primaries, and for the embracing of policies manufactured by extremist lobbying syndicates such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) such as Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56.  More and more each day, Americans are realizing that on the immigration issue and on many others, Republicans and Democrats have more in common with each other than either party has with extremists.

NOTE: When I was a young filmmaker I wrote a press release in promotion of the film Charlotte Sometimes.  I’m ashamed of it to this day.  The situation was that we were premiering the film at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), working up until the last minute to finish it, and the Executive Producer of the film, John Manulis, decided not to pay for postcards to hand out as a way of promoting our three screenings.  When I arrived with the cast of the film in Austin, TX, we saw that all the other films, even the short films, had posters plastered everywhere, and post cards to hand out in order to invite people to their screenings.  The initial shock of getting out of the gate so slowly ended up working in our favor.  We created some makeshift flyers, busted our butts to fill those theaters, and we did it with a lot of heart.  To make up for our sorry-looking flyers, we spent extra time getting to know people and asking them to support us by coming to our film.  Our audiences were on the small side, but they were filled with people we’d met and made friends with.  I’m sure this is a big reason why we won the Audience Award (we tied with another film actually) and this helped lift Charlotte Sometimes to the kind of dream-come-true success that can launch a career.

But, one thing blots my otherwise fond memory of the premiere of my first feature film.  It’s that darn press release I wrote to announce the award.  The final paragraph took a shot at our Executive Producer, implying that he was cheap and/or didn’t think enough of our film to pay for our post cards.  At the time I thought he was a really tough producer for a director to work with, but over the years, after making many more films, I realized he was actually the best producer I ever worked with.  I was just too young to realize it then, and, too caught up in the moment to see that I never would have had the opportunity to show my film at SXSW because John believed in me enough to produce it!  I never apologized for that press release.  But I have told him that I appreciate him as a producer and as a person.  I saw him about three weeks ago and it was warm and cordial.

It was a mistake for me to assume it would be good publicity to unfairly criticize someone who had done so much to help me.  In writing that press release, I should have been celebrating the fact that I’d made a good film and that people were starting to recognize it.

Sometimes, artists and advocates can let our passion and ambition blind us to our own principles, and the larger landscape of causes and issues for which we toil.

Categories: Uncategorized.