Filmmaker Ursula Liang with camera on location in New York
Interview

“Nobody Was Listening”: Finding Light in a Dark Stairwell

April 07, 2021 by Craig Phillips in Behind the Films

Filmmaker Ursula Liang‘s previous documentary 9-Man was about the fascinating titular sport that originated among Chinese immigrant communities in the United States and Canada, and was set in mostly Boston, Washington and Toronto. Her new film Down a Dark Stairwell takes Liang and her crew down a darker storyline, but as the Massachusetts native Liang notes in our conversation below, one infused with some elements of hope as well. It’s the complex story of the tragic shooting in Brooklyn of Akai Gurley, an innocent Black man, and subsequent trial of the Chinese American police officer, Peter Liang (no relation), who pulled the trigger, and casts a powerful light on the experiences of two marginalized communities thrust into an uneven criminal justice system together. It’s also, as we’ll discuss here, incredibly timely. 

In fact, Down a Dark Stairwell is “timely, powerful, complex, and necessary viewing,” writes Andrew Parker for The Gate. “Ursula Liang’s documentary uses one of the most prominent recent examples of racialized police violence to examine the ways that white privilege and supremacy can tear communities apart just as they should be pulling together.”

Another powerful aspect of how Liang assembles her productions–her crew for 9-Man was mostly women, and for Down a Dark Stairwell, “the key creatives who worked on the film were Black and/or Asian, emphasizing the need to center BIPOC creatives in a story about their own communities,” noted ArtsEmerson in a feature on the film. 

Ursula spoke to me over the phone from her home in New York where she literally had just had a baby one week prior—she told me, “This is my first time trying to use my brain since the baby”—while awaiting the PBS release of her other “baby,” this film she gave so much of her life to for several years.

What inspired you to want to tell this story for Down a Dark Stairwell?

Ursula Liang: Most stories about people of color use whiteness as a point of reference and this narrative presented a great opportunity to center our voices and elevate a conversation between and among us. This shooting [in NY] happened at a pivotal moment in the 2014 Black Lives Matter movement, and it seemed important to make sure that Asian Americans were included in the dialogue surrounding one of the most pressing issues of our time. 

The movement that arose in response to Peter’s conviction was astounding. In my lifetime, I had not seen a protest of that scale emerge from the Asian American community.  While rallies and chants and signs are a dime-a-dozen on the news, I knew that my understanding of this outcry was more informed than the general public’s. For Asian Americans, it was historic, and I wanted to document it with an intimate knowledge of what this story would mean to future generations. 

Akai Gurley's Aunt, subject Hertencia Petersen (center), attends a rally outside of Barclay's Center in Brooklyn wearing a Justice for Akai T-shirt. This protest ultimately marched by Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson's home.
Akai Gurley’s Aunt, subject Hertencia Petersen (center), attends a rally outside of Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn wearing a Justice for Akai T-shirt. This protest ultimately marched by Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson’s home. Credit: Ursula Liang

Who do you hope the film impacts the most? 

Black and Asian American communities, particularly those that are more culturally isolated, politically mainstream and less actively engaged in socio-political issues.

Could you talk about the title and how you landed on it as the way to best fit the story you’re trying to tell? Because to me it’s a very film noir title and evocative. But I was wondering what the title means to you.

That’s a good question. We definitely couldn’t come up with a better one. That’s always the answer that you fall back on. [laughs] I think it was hard to find a title that was neutral enough to allow audiences to come into the film without fully formed ideas of what the story would be.  

But I’m also interested in making films that are competitive in today’s media landscape, which is entertainment. People think of documentaries in a certain way, and they don’t want to watch things that are boring, or too academic, or overly pedantic. And to have something that fits in a more creative space, I think was a good idea to make people know that there is a mood and entertaining component of the film. That was important. “While not all the conversations were being had, there were little movements in positive directions.” 

It connotes a lot of different things. It’s quite literal in the fact that this was happening as both Peter and Akai were heading down the stairs, but we also played with this idea of stairs. And a poster we designed is sort of MC Escher-inspired, where you’ve got this labyrinth of stairs that lead you in multiple directions.

The title implies both the very obvious and literal of what happened during the event, but it’s also about the community’s reaction to the case.  In my mind, the direction that audiences and communities are heading is similar to the literal path of the bullet and the incident. If we’re not thinking through these things and discussing these issues now, are we headed in that same direction into a dark unknown?

Despite the tragedy in this story, there is some hope to find in the film. What was it about telling these stories and making this film that actually gave you some hope?

Well, I think that we have to remember always that the case was both the worst of everything, but also a win for almost everybody involved too. I think that “win” is probably a tough word to use, but this is the first [of this kind of] case where there actually was a conviction in a long time. And so, while the folks that were on the Akai Gurley side didn’t really get the result they wanted in terms of punishment, this was a case that moved the needle, and the things they thought were supposed to happen did happen. There was an indictment. There was a conviction. That says something. About four months after Eric Garner’s death, things had moved in a positive direction for folks that were looking for a different type of justice.

Peter Liang's mother speaks at the 2/20/2016 protest in support of Peter Liang at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, NY while John Chan offers support; Credit: Chag Chag Leon
Peter Liang’s mother speaks at the 2/20/2016 protest in support of Peter Liang at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, NY while John Chan offers support; Credit: Chag Chag Leon

On the Peter Liang side, there was this growth of a movement that had really not existed before. And probably that led to political pressure that perhaps affected the outcome of the case. So there are some things that could give audiences some hope in the context of a very tragic situation.

But we often think of things in such black and white terms—instant wins and losses. But I think all movements are about long-term gains. I saw that along the way in making this film. While not all the conversations were being had, there were little movements in positive directions.

I spent a lot of time with organizers—and they’ll tell you, it’s not really about the short game, it’s about the long game. And if we can continue to move in the right direction, the long game ultimately can be improved.

That leads to another question: this film is so timely in a lot of ways that are, of course, very disturbing and sad, but given everything that’s been going on, both with waves of violence against Asian Americans in this country, and then also the Derek Chauvin trial going on as we speak, there are many reasons why this is timely, but how can this film become a discussion tool for people? Especially, as a footnote, given that it’s going to reach an even wider audience on PBS with a Chinese subtitled version. Are there ways you would suggest people can open up and have conversations after watching your film, about everything that’s happening in this country?

I’m super excited about the Chinese translated version, which is something Independent Lens has never done before. I’m hoping it leads to younger people seeing the film and then introducing it to their parents who don’t have the same language proficiency. I’m really excited about the opportunity for people to not just sit and watch something on their computer and be in their thoughts in their own heads, but to experience the film and then introduce it to somebody else—opening up to an intergenerational share, which I think is very important, and particularly in the Asian American community.

Sadly it is very relevant right now, but as we were making the film, trying to fund a film like this, which is about a topic that’s been talked about for years, people were actually saying that they had “protest fatigue,” having watched films where people are out in the streets rallying so many times that they were not really absorbing that content anymore. “The feeling of being ignored has been there for so long that it affects the way the community is interacting with all these other issues.”

So we were very aware of that when making the film, we were entering a space with a lot of really incredible films but we had to add to that conversation and needed to do something very different.

As we were making the film, I kept thinking, this is really a “future film.” While the case is already several years old and substantially in the past, we definitely tried to make the film in [the] present tense, because we were starting to think about some issues that people hadn’t really broached yet publicly. And there have been multiple times where we thought this is relevant again.

During the tiki torch Charlottesville moment where white nationalism, cultural nationalism was really being talked about, we thought that this film was an example of that too, of how people cluster with their own and have nationalistic instincts when they’re feeling like their existence in this country is threatened in some way. And then last summer during the George Floyd protests and that became another—there have been reasons why it keeps popping up.

And we’re talking about this moment now with anti-Asian hate crimes. That’s not so on the nose when you’re talking about this film, but if you watch the film, you realize there’s a scene in it from 2016, where they’re literally talking about anti-Asian hate crimes, about the racial dynamics of that, and about seniors being assaulted. And nobody was listening at that point. 

Brooklyn residents, Christopher Williams (left) and Marcus Mothersill, discuss the case and policing in America on a street corner in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Akai Gurley once lived.
Brooklyn residents, Christopher Williams (left) and Marcus Mothersill, discuss the case and policing in America on a street corner in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Akai Gurley once lived. Credit: Mohammed Asad Faruqi

[It’s] something I knew was going on, and people in the community knew was going on, and it’s a reflection of how people sometimes have a hard time understanding the perspective of the Asian Americans that supported Peter in this case, because the logic of it is not so literal as it is on the Akai side. But I think now people that have a sensitivity to this anti-Asian hate crime movement are starting to realize that the invisibility and the feeling of being ignored, and these issues being ignored over time has been there for so long that it affects the way the community is interacting with all these other issues.

That was the scene that a lot of people were seeing as a bit of an outlier or something to be cut, and we didn’t cut it, because I think it was in part a way of adding a little bit of an emotive understanding of how the community was feeling, and the types of things that were factoring into their movement.

There’s even a little aside [where] one of the subjects talks about having already a little bit of a network of organizing based on the Jimmy Kimmel incident, where there was a really racist joke on Kimmel [about China] that never got properly responded to. And this month in The New York Times you had Jay Leno apologizing for his history of anti-Asian jokes, that he realizes are contributing factors to the types of dehumanization of the community that people are exposing right now. Those are the microaggressions that add up to actual aggressions. But all those little pieces, parts are there many years ago. And I guess the film can be a little bit of an “I told you so.” We’ve been talking about this for a while. Nobody has been listening.

Was there something you did have to cut that still sticks with you?

There was a very touching moment of Akai’s aunt and an Asian American supporter hugging in a moment of solidarity that we had to cut at the last minute due to licensing issues. Also, a scene featuring the late Chinatown scholar, Peter Kwong. 

I regret not being able to include the many rich personal stories that emerged in our interviews with subjects: childhood encounters with police, experiences in Chinatown and Brooklyn, playing stickball, stern parenting, boxing in the streets, going to parades in the West Village, community gardens and barbeques, migrant tales—all the flavors of New York neighborhood life were so colorful and resonant. 

This is obviously such a complex, or multi-layered story to try to tell in a neutral way. How did you approach putting it all together?

When you are making a complex film about a complex subject, the edit is always incredibly challenging. It’s a very emotional journey for you as a director, and a very real logistical undertaking to lasso years of footage. I was lucky enough to have an incredible team, Michelle Chang and J.M. Harper., who supported and elevated both the twists and turns of my creative process and the practical, technical realities of cutting a feature. 

It helps to surround yourself with incredibly smart and thoughtful human beings who care about you, the subjects, art and craft and the greater social issues that your film hopes to spotlight. Everyone who worked on Down a Dark Stairwell was devoted to these principles and that’s how we made it through the many challenging moments in the edit and beyond. 

How did you get everyone interviewed or captured in the piece—given tensions and the tragedy involved—to open up to you or let you show their perspectives?

I met most of the subjects of the film on the streets and a few by introduction from community members. My approach is always to be as transparent as possible. Trust is a bit of a utopian ideal, but you do want subjects to know that you have integrity and ultimately care about people and are committed to fair and honest filmmaking. It’s important to be present but also to give folks space, especially when you’re dealing with a very traumatic subject.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

The best thing about being a filmmaker is having the privilege of being present while history is being made and emotional moments are happening in front of you.  I am thankful I got to witness so many of those in making this film—from subjects being incredibly vulnerable and open and brave to inspiring protests to textured portraits of New York life. I also loved being surprised by very impromptu moments in the street. We were filming exteriors in Brooklyn and two men were eating a pizza on top of their car.  They asked me about what we were doing and offered me a slice.  And then we decided to film them talking. They were so poetic in such an authentic New York way, and the NYPD kept passing in the background right on cue. I loved their energy and their relationship and the realness of that moment and it became a perfect closing scene for the film.

Is there anything else you’d like to share — interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?

We recorded an original song for the end credits of the film. It was a collaboration between our composer,  Andrew Orkin, producer Scott “Chops” Jung and Akai Gurley’s friend, Gizz, who goes by the stage name Pretty Boi G. Chops was one of the original members of the Mountain Brothers, the first Asian American hip-hop group signed to a major label. It was really nice to finish the film with a collaborative moment. We made a point of making the doc with a diverse crew and the act of spending time together on set, in the edit, in the studio, was a meaningful, generative experience.  The full track is available here on Soundcloud.

What are your three favorite or most influential documentaries or fictional films?

O.J. Made in America, Bill Cunningham New York, Shirkers.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.