Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: 9500 Liberty

“9500 Liberty” is a landmark movie. Its makers sensed that their footage was too important to keep in the can. People needed to see it as soon as possible. So they began posting raw footage to YouTube and soliciting feedback. Their documentary became a piece of Internet age interactive moviemaking.

The movie takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to following events in Virginia’s Prince William County. Council members strive to pass anti-immigration law that would require police officers to question anyone they have “probable cause” to suspect as being an undocumented immigrant.

It would be a blank check authorizing racial profiling and leads to fierce battle lines being drawn. It will tear a town apart. It will provoke author John Grisham to write, “‘9500 Liberty’ makes it clear that when we, as a nation of immigrants, debate the immigration issue, we are defining our very identity as Americans.”

On one side are longtime citizens of the county, worried about everything from declining property values to fears and frustrations over hearing Spanish spoken in the corner store. On the other is the rapidly growing Hispanic population, mostly worried about earning wages and raising their families.

The movie offers a straight forward account, but it’s made riveting, moving, and maddening by its gallery of characters. “9500 Liberty” has everything, a chorus of angered citizens, a housing contractor with a unique approach to free speech, a terrifying villain, and the housewife who brought him to his knees.

During the council meetings, everyone with an opinion has a moment at the microphone. Most memorable is a man so filled with hatred that he trembles from his upper lip all the way down to his shoes. He’s balanced by young children sent to the microphone by their parents who are too upset – or too wise – to try to address the council in English.

The title is a street address: 9500 Liberty Street. The property is owned by home improvement contractor Gaudencio Fernandez and on it still stands one wall from a demolished house. The wall faces a busy street corner. Fernandez fills that “billboard” with his thoughts. As time goes by, he refills the wall with increasingly desperate thoughts.

The villain – and instigator of the legislation – is blogger and self-styled political activist Greg Letiecq. Like everyone in the movie, he is given plenty of freedom to express himself – and plenty of rope to tie a noose around his neck. He’s a man on a mission to rid his town of Hispanics and drunk with the power of seeing his words get thousands of hits.

Enter Elena Schlossberg, a stay-at-home mom with two young children and a computer. Feeling helpless in the face of Letiecq, she attends a blogger convention and is struck by a lightning bolt. She creates a blog of her own, an anti-Letiecq blog, and turns her kitchen table into an unlikely command post.

The movie capitalizes ingeniously on technology and the Internet. But the most fascinating moment feels like an old school plea for making use of whatever is at hand. Faced with Letiecq’s relentless blogging, Fernandez makes use of that wall and some paint to create something remarkable.

He had a big surface to write his thoughts and he had lots of traffic flowing past it. His “liberty wall” became perhaps the most powerful blog of all.

“9500 Liberty” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is appropriate for all ages and would be highly appropriate viewing for most school children. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

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