COURTESY CECELIA TSAI
Daniel Cariaga, left, and Eric Byler.
Same medium, new message
Eric Byler moves from filmmaking to political activism with his work on major campaigns
» Hapa romance on DVD
Filmmaker Eric Byler has undergone a drastic change in life and career in the three years since the making of his second feature film, "Tre."
Although he still uses digital video as a means of expression,
Byler now devotes all his energy and passion to political activism, hence the move from Los Angeles to Virginia's Prince William County, where his parents live and he spent time growing up.
Byler and filmmaker Annabel Park have used new media in their political work, first to help Jim Webb become Virginia's junior U.S. senator (over incumbent George Allen, notorious for his use of the epithet "macaca" to describe a Webb volunteer of Indian descent) and now toward stemming the tide of anti-immigrant anger in his home county.
COURTESY CECELIA TSAI
Daniel Cariaga and Eric Byler have focused their energy on other things since filming "Tre," above.
Last year, Byler made a short video supporting a U.S. House resolution asking that the Japanese government "acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility" for the Imperial Army's treatment of Korean "comfort women" from the 1930s through World War II.
The title role in "Tre" came about as Cariaga was "transitioning out of acting." He's now "semiretired" from that life, working a day gig as a paramedic in the California coastal town of San Luis Obispo.
"I was more of a playwright years ago, and still am," he said.
But while he was still living in Los Angeles, the acting and the writing went hand in hand, beginning in 1997.
His plays included such titles as "Wasted," "Sensitivity Training for Men" and "Sleepwalk," which was a finalist for the PEN USA West Literary Award in 2001. A review of the latter by the Los Angeles Times mentions that "Cariaga shows great skill at portraying primal emotions."
Kimberly-Rose Wolter, the female lead in "Tre," helped by reading the testimony of one of those women for the video. Byler also recruited "Lost" actor Daniel Dae Kim to appear in another video in support of the resolution.
House Resolution 121 -- introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) -- was adopted by both houses of Congress by late July 2007.
Byler is now working in the documentary form. His latest project, "9500 Liberty," protests racial profiling and a policy in Prince William County that required police to check the immigration status of "suspicious" drivers during routine traffic stops.
The title is taken from a street address where a sign had been posted reading, in part, "Stop Your Racism to Hispanics!"
The latest version of the documentary screened yesterday, ironically in the government building where the board of supervisors had been pressured to vote down the controversial policy.
With Byler's art broadening into the real-world political arena, what's happened to his attention to the dramatic minutiae of Asian-American relationships?
"I have to say that it has come at some cost to my narrative filmmaking career, since I'm focused so much on new media, activism and politics in general since 2006."
A supporter of Barack Obama, he tells the story of deciding to stay in Las Vegas in mid-January to canvass for the Obama campaign, rather than return to L.A. to iron out distribution problems before the "Tre" premiere there.
Wolter, co-artistic director of the Vs. Theatre Company in Los Angeles, is currently trying to secure funding for two Hawaii-based projects: A documentary, "Growing Up Hawaiian," and a television pilot, "Knots," about three hapa sisters and their mother, who own a wedding planning company in Honolulu.
"I really wanted to write something that shows the local resident experience," she said of "Knots." "We could treat it like how 'Sex and the City' uses New York. It would be a cosmopolitan show, hosting local and international people and more mixed ethnic casting."
She and local producer Dana Hankins are talking to local investors, Wolter said, with the hope of starting production sometime next year.
His activism delayed post-production work and distribution of both "Tre" and "Americanese," another Asian-American relationship drama that included in its cast local-born actress Kelly Hu. (The latter film is entangled in legal problems that stopped its limited theatrical run. Byler hopes to head back to L.A. to address those issues now that there's a relative lull in the presidential campaign.)
"I'm still interested in unique Asian-American stories, but now I'm more civically minded," Byler said.
Working with Park, "we're reaching out to other Asian-Americans (who) have not overcome barriers in the participation in democracy. It's become intoxicating. It's more exciting than 'Charlotte Sometimes' getting recognized at the Independent Spirit Awards."
His interest in Hispanic issues also represents an expansion of his focus. "I'm now inspired by other immigrant ethnic groups who have been struggling in this country."
Byler has spent much of his career dramatizing Asian-American stories, but since "Charlotte" that ground has been well covered, he said. "Since then there have been upwards of 100 Asian-American dramatic videos, so it's no longer the case that we don't have the tools."