I have seen a few pretty good documentaries this year, including October Country and Big River Man, but 9500 Liberty is something else. This could be the future of documentaries. I have been looking for ways that documentaries could break out of their tired formats, using talking heads and clips, or else that old pompous, preachy, "this is good for you" tone, and this movie by Eric Byler and Annabel Park has done it. It follows the progress of an anti-immigration law in Virginia. With everyone fighting and taking sides, the filmmakers discover that they are in possession of the most complete and accurate information, and so they begin to take part in their own story. In addition, they posted bits and pieces of the film on YouTube, further changing the direction of their coverage. It's a living, breathing film.
Die-hard film buffs may recognize Eric Byler's name. He has made three feature films to date, all very strong romantic character studies with a melodramatic touch. Charlotte Sometimes (2003) drew some hostile fire for its matter-of-fact portrayal of mixed-race characters without commenting upon the situation. (Byler himself is of mixed race.) Roger Ebert defended it, and so did I in my San Francisco Examiner review. Byler contacted me and we became friends (as he did with Ebert). I championed his next film, Americanese (2006), starring Joan Chen and Kelly Hu, here on Cinematical (as did Kim Voynar); IFC picked up the film for distribution and has been sitting on it ever since. Then came Tre (2008), which attracted barely any attention at all, but continued to show how gifted Byler was at portraying groups of characters, emotional relationships, and their visual representations.