Art, Media, and Social Responsibility for Asian Americans: Profile of Eric Byler, Filmmaker
Chae, Sharon, Asian American Policy Review
For filmmaker and up-and-coming political activist Eric Byler, being a Hapa American--a person of mixed Asian and European heritage--was a doubly disorienting phenomenon growing up. "In Virginia, where I spent my early childhood, I grew up looking more Chinese than White," Byler recounted, "and because this was a community with few Asian Americans, I saw this as a social deficit. Adolescence got me looking more Hapa, but by then my family had moved to Hawaii, where the majority is Asian and looking White was a social deficit."
Growing up as the "odd one out" who was neither White enough nor Asian enough, the only consistent emotion Byler experienced in both Virginia and Hawaii was a nagging sense of isolation. To Byler, art became the one reliable way for self-expression where he could turn this sense of isolation into something positive and beautiful.
As a film student at Wesleyan University, Byler initially believed the primary purpose of film to be a venue for escapism and entertainment, and set out to become a filmmaker who provided both. When his student film Kenji's Faith debuted at Sundance to rave reviews, however, he met and was embraced by what he describes as his own tribe--a Los Angeles-based group of Asian American artists who wanted to do more than simply make their audience and laugh and forget about the harsh realities of the everyday life.
Paralleling his rise as a filmmaker, Byler's passion for community and social issues also grew, and he began to use his artistic skills as a means to mobilize the community whenever he witnessed prejudice and injustice. There were signs even from a young age--as a high school student in Hawaii, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Honolulu Star Bulletin protesting its decision to publish an anti-gay advertisement on the morning of a Gay Pride Parade stating, "There Is No Pride In
Homosexuality." In the letter, Byler asked if it would have printed an ad had it denigrated African American Awareness Month instead, bringing forth an issue that had not yet gained prominence in mass media. Byler says of this event, "As a kid, prejudice and discrimination were important parts of the questions I was forced to ask myself, and I became sensitive to instances of prejudice, regardless of the target."
As Byler grew as a filmmaker, both his confidence as a member of a tribe of Asian American artists as well as his lifelong interest in examining the various angles of prejudice became increasingly prominent in the characters and stories he developed through his film. Byler's first feature film, Charlotte Sometimes (2003), examines the unspoken rifts and complex gender politics caused by American stereotypes that tend to exoticize Asian females while marginalizing Asian males. As Byler honed his craft to make a social statement about the internal lives of Asian Americans, he was also maturing as a political activist and a community organizer.
Byler said of this period, "I felt truly demoralized. I nearly lost faith in our political system when I learned of the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in Florida during the 2000 election. To me, this was about corrupt political appointees taking advantage of a lack of oversight and victimizing a minority who lacked legal protection. Over the next few years, I decided to get involved in some small way and try to make a difference." In 2004, Byler led groups of volunteers on road trips to Arizona and Nevada to volunteer for John Kerry. In early 2006, Byler drove to San Diego and volunteered for candidate Francine Busby in the days leading up to the special election to replace Randall "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned his seat in Congress after being indicted and convicted of taking bribes from defense contractors. Byler the Political Activist and Organizer was born.
A few months later, a video he saw on YouTube inspired him to fly across the country and volunteer in the same state where he had attended grammar school, Virginia. …