“It Feels like this Case was a Warning Sign for the Future”: Ursula Liang on Her DOC NYC Feature, Down a Dark Stairwell
On November 20, 2014, 28-year-old Akai Gurley was killed by an NYPD officer’s bullet in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. Another unarmed Black man dead at the hands of the police; another surge of street protests and demands for justice. But this one was different: the officer, Peter Liang, was Chinese American. Liang claimed the shooting was entirely accidental. When he was indicted, many wondered if he was being scapegoated for the shortcomings of a justice system that had only recently failed to bring charges against the white policemen who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. After Liang was convicted in 2016, Chinese American activists organized protests that drew tens of thousands of supporters across the country. In the end, the city reached a seven-figure settlement with Gurley’s family, Liang’s manslaughter conviction was reduced to criminally negligent homicide, and he was sentenced to five years’ probation and 800 hours of community service. By then, the national media spotlight had moved away from the story. But New York-based documentary filmmaker Ursula Liang (no relation to Peter) was still on the case.
A former print journalist and television producer, Liang made the jump to directing with 2014’s 9-Man, about a streetball game played in Chinatowns throughout North America—an intriguing fusion of sports doc and cultural history. Her new documentary Down a Dark Stairwell looks at Gurley’s death and its aftermath from the perspective of activists on both sides of the conflict: those allied with the Gurley family, and those working on behalf of Peter Liang. Most of the former are African American, and most of the latter are Chinese American, but the film finds within each community a teeming multiplicity of viewpoints and a diverse, sometimes discordant range of voices. Activism is the subject of Down a Dark Stairwell, and the urgency of choosing a side one of its central themes, but its approach is painstakingly fair-minded. The movie doesn’t try to simplify the issues or provide easy answers to the questions raised by this messy, complex, painful story, yet it holds your attention throughout.
Down a Dark Stairwell has played at more than a dozen festivals since its premiere at True/False in March. It will screen online Nov. 11–19 as part of DOC NYC; go here for tickets. Follow @noncompliantfilms on social media for further updates.
Filmmaker: What were your first steps in getting this movie going?
Ursula Liang: It was a pretty big news story in the wake of the Eric Garner case here in New York. I immediately was attracted in some way to the story because the police officer shared my last name and also shares my brother’s first name. So I was like, I gotta pay attention to this story because my brother may be getting hate mail soon. But I was in the middle of finishing up and releasing my previous film so I sort of lost sight of it. I didn’t necessarily think at the time that I was going to tell the story, but I did know that it was important because this was the first time we saw a Black Lives Matter case that involved the Asian American community so directly. And when it really came back into my sights again was during the large protests after [Peter Liang’s] conviction. The scale of those protests is what kicked me into action, and the fact that they were dominated by Chinese Americans, who don’t usually go out into the streets as often as other groups do. That raised my eyebrows, and I definitely felt like I was being asked to tell the story at that point.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to get those first few subjects to sign on initially?
Liang: The Akai Gurley organizers were really smart about media and they were pretty open with us. The first day that we went to a protest, we were just on the street corner filming them doing a speakout, and we asked after the protest was over whether we could put a mic on Akai’s aunt, and she let us follow her around inside the Pink Houses [where Gurley was killed] on that day. So I give them a lot of credit for being open and for understanding that the intimacy they were allowing was really going to help audiences connect to their story.
Filmmaker: I’m sure you tried to get access to Peter Liang himself…
Liang: We did. We communicated with him, and he was not ready to do an interview at the time that we were needing it. But we also thought a lot about the fairness of having an interview with Peter and not having an interview with Akai. They were almost parallel characters in the film, they’re similar in age, they’re both New York City kids, and it felt like a lot of the balance of the film would flip if we were able to get Peter. Of course we did want to have him. But we also knew we were always planning to make the film without him. I never know if I should admit to that or not. [laughs] We didn’t want him at all!
I did have to, in the making of the film, make it clear to people that I was going to tell it in a journalistic way and it wasn’t going to be an advocacy film for one point of view. But I do think we are leading people on a journey to think critically about this case and the larger issues that it brings up. And we did want the story to be a vehicle for those larger issues, for it not to be so fixated on the minutiae of the case that people would get lost in that. That’s what true crime on TV is for. I love that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t what we wanted to do with the film.
Filmmaker: One of the novel aspects of the film and of the story in general, as you mentioned earlier, is that this primarily older generation of Chinese Americans, many of them immigrants, had this sort of spirit of activism awakened. In some ways it’s heartening to see, but Cathy, the younger progressive activist in the film, expresses some concern that the first time the Chinese American community gets involved with protests is when it’s a member of their own that they feel is being treated unfairly. So there’s this insularity to it.
Liang: We wanted to be very clear that it wasn’t a monolithic opinion from the Asian American community, but there was a very outsized protest on behalf of Peter Liang, so it was important for us to have this third prong in the film where we show these Asian Americans who were adamantly standing up for Akai’s family, and who have been working in solidarity with the Black community for a long time on these issues. But even those folks that were more aligned with the Akai Gurley side felt this interesting tension. Because there was this—I don’t want to say pride, but this excitement that there had been a large political awakening on a major social issue for our community and also an alarm that the energy was being misdirected.
One of the things we wanted to tell in the story is that this is like the beginning of a community finding language and finding strength in protesting. But it was also made very clear to me in no uncertain terms that Asian Americans had been protesting since the beginning of time. Some folks that are involved in these movements were unhappy with me telling this story because they did not want it to be seen like our community hasn’t been involved in the civil rights movement—like we weren’t part of the Black Panthers, like we weren’t part of all these major movements in America, because we were. There have been large activist movements by the Asian American community over time. But there are also many different waves of Asian Americans in this country, especially Chinese Americans, and they all have very specific identities and very specific relationships with activism and justice.
Filmmaker: That’s something you touch on at the very end of the film. There’s a montage that shows these different trans-racial alliances that Asian American activists have historically been part of, whether it’s the Filipino farm workers and Cesar Chavez, or Yuri Kochiyama. It felt like that was the only time in the movie that you editorialize a bit, and I don’t mean that as criticism—but why was that the concluding statement?
Liang: Well, that’s like the extra credit section of the film. Some people are going to know what it is, but not everybody is going to know. But those folks that are particularly aligned with social justice movements will see some iconic images that not only talk about this sort of intersectional work, but also the very difficult work of solidarity. None of those movements of the past were perfect either. They took a lot of struggle to move forward, and I think part of the message that we wanted to make is that we need to do the work. I’m not saying necessarily that anyone in this story in particular has to agree with one another, but I think we do have to reach a point where we realize that our futures as individuals and as communities are aligned. So we may have different needs and fights, but we have to find points where we can come together.
I don’t know, to me when I was making the film, it feels like this case in some ways was a warning sign for the future. There’s so much emotion around this case, and so much passion, but also so much anger and frustration, and I guess I wanted to start talking about what happens in the future if we can’t figure these things out.
Filmmaker: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t want to depict the Chinese American community as being monolithic. That also applies to the Black subjects in the film; there’s a real diversity of opinions there. You have the African American protestors who feel that Asians have not traditionally spoken up for them. At the same time you have people like Kerbie, the activist who says she’s not comfortable using terms like “model minority” because of the history of that term being used by white racists as a way to divide Asian and Black communities.
Liang: Well, I want to give credit to my consulting producer Chanelle Aponte Pearson — she’s an amazing filmmaker — and also my supervising producer Shana Swanson. They’re both Black and they were fighting equally for their community not to be seen as monolithic. And when you’re dealing with organizers—organizers tend to be very message-oriented, and so we did want to make sure that we worked to find those places of nuance. Asian Americans have very little representation on screen, so every single portrait of the Asian American community feels like a stamp of some very specific sort. And my last film, 9-Man, I tried to do the same thing, it was about showing a real diversity of opinion, and physical body type, and regional accent, that was important for me. The Black community has a lot of representation in media, but again, there are very limited windows, and the media doesn’t really have more than a few portraits of Black America. People of color are still limited as to what they can present to the world and what is presented to the world.
Filmmaker: What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
Liang: I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you what I’m doing next, the paperwork isn’t signed, but I’m working on directing a film about a well-known person in the Asian American community. You know, I definitely thought about quitting making films because this one was so hard to make. You think that after every independent film that you have to put your own money and your own sweat and your whole life into. But an opportunity came along that seems well enough supported that I can have the energy to engage again. I think you just need a few years to get the stamina back up again to make an indie film. So I’m not quitting yet, but I really was going to! [laughs]
Liang: Yeah, I was like, I’m not doing this ever again! It’s too hard! It’s so hard.
Filmmaker: Did you feel that way after finishing your first film?
Liang: No, not so distinctly. This one was harder. Working with a really tough subject is draining. Not just for me but for everybody involved. And I think of it like this: It’s very easy to identify the primary trauma, which is felt by the loved ones and the family and friends who were directly affected. Then all the organizers, who are living through this every day and dealing with all the stress of organizing—they have this other level of trauma that never gets acknowledged because it feels secondary to that family trauma. And then there’s the trauma of being a filmmaker trying to deal with all these people who are really stressed out, and it’s not just shooting and editing, it’s all the time conversations, it’s all the time emotional work and thinking and worrying about stuff, and that just gets to be a lot. Indie filmmaking is tough.
Filmmaker: It’s tough. One of the great rewards for it in my experience has always been connecting with audiences, but that’s been strange this year. You had your premiere at True/False, that was your first and only live screening, and since then it’s all been online festivals. What has that been like?
Liang: I feel robbed. I mean, True/False is amazing because they fill their seats. They had like a 1,600-person theater that they were able to put bodies into. But I don’t know people in Missouri, so you’re there without your family and friends around you, and without your film team. And I feel most sad about the film team because we worked really hard to finish things, and we were never able to celebrate together. And I also feel bad for the subjects, because some of them have had to watch it on screeners and have not seen the power that their story has on audiences. You know, you’re sharing very vulnerable parts of your life, and I think part of that is remediated by having the experience of seeing how what you’re sharing moves people and pushes the movement forward. And unfortunately, they don’t get to have that experience. I hope that we’ll have it someday in the near future. It’s hard to tell if people are watching, we don’t get feedback. I hope people are seeing the film, and receiving the film, in the way that we intended it. But who knows?