In October 2016, as co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato began shooting their new HBO documentary, “Liberty: Mother of Exiles,” their plan was straightforward. The film, which premieres Oct. 17, would trace the history of the Statue of Liberty, and follow the designer Diane von Furstenberg’s efforts to raise money for the new Statue of Liberty Museum in New York City.
But then Donald Trump was elected, and the statue became contested ground — and because of his anti-immigration stance, a significant political symbol. Since Trump took office, the Statue of Liberty has not only been the site of two protests shown in “Liberty” — one of which shut down Liberty Island on July 4, 2018 — but also was the subject of a heated exchange between Trump adviser Stephen Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta about the famous Emma Lazarus poem, ”The New Colossus,” inscribed on a plaque on its pedestal.
“We wanted to avoid getting into the weeds of Trumpistan,” Bailey says. “But Stephen Miller’s very deliberate lie that the poem was an add-on to the statue I thought was really important.” (Yes, the poem — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …” — was added to the statue in 1903, but it was written in 1883 specifically to raise money to build its pedestal.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that “Liberty” would become politicized, though, since the origins of the Statue of Liberty are rabble-rousing. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the statue was conceived as a gift to the United States by the antislavery French political thinker Édouard de Laboulaye, and he enlisted the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi to build it. Bartholdi simultaneously had the idea to put up a colossal statue at the mouth of the Suez Canal, and his drawings of an Egyptian Muslim woman later evolved into his plan for the Statue of Liberty. Whether Bartholdi modeled the statue on his mother, or a prostitute who served as an artist’s model, or his brother is unclear.
But Bailey — whose company World of Wonder also produces “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — knows what he’s rooting for. “An immigrant Muslim drag queen?” Bailey says. “For the Stephen Millers of this world, that would probably have their heads going around in circles.”
There are no sit-down interviews in “Liberty,” nor is there a narrator: a visual style that was motivated by the statue itself, which is stepping forward and breaking out of shackles. Von Furstenberg — an executive producer of the documentary— serves as “Liberty’s” guide as she raises money for the museum and finds herself, an immigrant from Belgium, inspired by the monument’s history.
The Statue of Liberty is a massive presence in New York Harbor, and has been Zelig-like in pop culture since it was erected in 1886, as viewers of “Liberty” will see in an array of images. But it was the magician David Copperfield, who got permission from Ronald Reagan to make the statue disappear in a 1983 TV special, who made the directors see another aspect of its symbolic importance. Copperfield sought them out, and they were reluctant to interview him, but “what Copperfield really showed us was how the statue is a magic thing,” Bailey says.
“It’s fragile, because it’s hollow. But it is so vast — it has this sort of power,” he says. “And I think that his stunt of making the statue disappear was a brilliant way to — as he says — show that something that we take for granted can so easily disappear.”
That’s a message “Liberty” hammers home. The filmmakers interview an anonymous activist who unfurled a giant banner that read “REFUGEES WELCOME” on the statue’s pedestal in February 2017, just as the Trump administration’s policies on immigration were becoming evident. Though the sign was quickly taken down by park service rangers, the image went viral on social media. Bailey says the activist, who wears a mask, agreed to talk to the directors to show that “individuals can make a big difference” in the current political climate.
Paraphrasing Lazarus’ line about “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” Bailey continues: “The teeming refuse is not as Trump would portray it — as garbage, or an infestation, or an invasion. The teeming refuse is made up of individuals, each and every one of whom is equal to the most successful, the most rich, the most powerful.
“And each and every one of whom can make a difference.”