Human Rights Watch Fest 2020 Interview: Ursula Liang on the First Steps of a Difficult Path Towards a Brighter Future in “Down a Dark Stairwell”

After spending the last four years working on “Down a Dark Stairwell,” it was a moment of triumph for Ursula Liang as she took the stage at the 1700-seat Jesse Auditorium at the University of Missouri to cap off the weekend where her latest film was making its premiere at the True/False Festival, though she couldn’t have predicted it would be the last physical public screening of the film for the foreseeable future.

“True/False was incredible, and it felt like a specific honor to be there when it was within striking distance of Ferguson, a place that really has a sensitivity to the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Liang, whose film chronicles the aftermath of the unnecessary death of Akai Gurley at the hands of NYPD officer Peter Liang (no relation to the director). “We had great audiences and I love that [programming] team, and it’s tough that the film doesn’t have a natural physical release in the world now because I think part of the film was trying to get people in the same room together to communicate.”

Although the coronavirus dealt a cruel blow to the director’s plans to travel to other festivals with the film, “Down a Dark Stairwell” has become more and more prescient by the day, tackling both the inherent racism in current police training that led Officer Liang to open fire on the unarmed Gurley in the Louis H. Pink Houses of Brooklyn during a routine patrol in November 2014 and the xenophobia that likely influenced the decision to bring manslaughter charges against Liang when so many other similar cases involving caucasian cops weren’t pursued by the district attorney’s office. While the case threatens to deeply divide the two communities who both take to the streets to protest what they feel is a great injustice against them individually, the film illustrates a system that seems set up to pit minorities against each other to keep the status quo in place and may document a tragedy in Gurley’s murder, but gradually inspires hope as the camera drifts towards passionate community organizers such as Kerbie Joseph of the Justice for Akai Gurley campaign and Cathy Dang of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence who see the benefits of building bridges when they are working separately towards the common cause of being seen as equals.

It may take time for “Down a Dark Stairwell” to reach audiences in the way the filmmaker first imagined, but it nonetheless will be able to bring people together this week when it debuts virtually as part of the Human Rights Watch Festival, streaming from June 11th through 20th. Liang will be participating in a live Q & A on June 17th, but she was gracious enough to speak with us at the tail end of May, just a few days after footage of the death of George Floyd began to be made public and Black Lives Matter protests would finally achieve the prominence they deserved.

How did this come about?

Along with the rest of America, I had been bombarded with news about black men being killed by police and when this incident happened, I read through the articles describing it and I saw there was a Chinese name, and not just a Chinese name, but a person with the same last name as me, so it was something I was really keyed into as soon as it happened. I never thought it was my story to tell, and I was watching the story more as a citizen, concerned about the complication that there was an Asian-American police officer involved and knowing that in some ways that it would affect my community in some way.

The American court system is very complicated and it takes a very long time for these things to be adjudicated, so it took a while for the story to come back into the fold and when the protests started happening at such a large scale, I really became sure that this was a story I had to tell. There’s so many things that people protest these days, we almost become numb to it, but I knew seeing the Asian community come out in such large numbers that it was significant, historically significant because our community in particular doesn’t get out into the streets that often, so that felt like a piece of history that was unfolding and I wanted to be able to tell a story in real time, not as a historical review.

It was interesting that you related to this by seeing the last name of the officer because I imagine that would become an obstacle with people you might approach who’d think you might be related to him. Was it a challenge?

Yeah, there’s been some question as to why I don’t just walk out and tell everybody it’s not my brother, but I’m not related to the officer and most people that come from an Asian background know that name is very popular, but for other folks, they don’t and I didn’t want people to feel they were being approached by somebody that was close to Peter, so I actually spent much more time approaching people in the streets than I did e-mailing them or finding them online and it made it necessary to be there in person. I would always tell people what my name was, but I also found out from [Akai’s] family members early on that it would’ve been triggering for them to see my name in the inbox, so I tried to work with people more in person and on a one-to-one basis.

Was there a bit of whiplash in terms of filming with one community and then the other?

I don’t feel I had a lot of whiplash because when you talk to people on a one-to-one basis, you almost always have a human connection. That’s what I think a lot of people lack [now], so we’re isolating in our own communities and we’re grouping with other people and when you step away from [that], it’s much easier to have love and care for each other when we’re sitting there in person with somebody and speaking to them on an individual level. That’s the privilege I felt I had, so it wasn’t like I was leaping from perspective to perspective to perspective, but I felt like I could connect on a human level with each person that I spoke to, even if I may not have agreed with everything that they were saying. I felt very lucky to have that experience and hopefully the intimacy of the film can allow viewers to see that as well.

We were trying to get people out of these scenarios where they’re posturing on the street, which are very specific organizing tactics and very important to movements, but they’re also these side conversations in bubble tea shops and community halls that are really important and we wanted to let audiences see. For folks that don’t have access to the Black and Asian community, in particular, it’s an interesting experience to be a fly-on-the-wall in some of those more intimate spaces and I hope they’ll appreciate that.

At True/False, you talked about your background in African-American studies, which made me wonder about how your own experience of figuring out the best way to be an ally as an Asian-American may have guided you in making this?

I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about this because I have really been struggling over the past few days to figure out how to be an ally. It’s really sad how this story continues to be relevant and it’s been hard to figure out how to release this film in this time where people are really facing life or death everyday with COVID-19, but then you have an Ahmaud Arbery case where [you see] these issues of systemic racism don’t go away in this climate. They’re really magnified. So I’ve been thinking a lot and what I see in my own personal [social media] feed is a lot of people posting pictures and I’m not sure that’s the way I’m going to express my allyship.

The first thing I did was I spent time checking in with all my friends, just making sure they were okay because while it’s traumatizing for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like being a black person in America and see these images over and over again while you’re dealing with a global pandemic which is disproportionately affecting your community. It’s really tough. We wanted to be very careful about how we represent brutality against black people because there’s a level as how much some of these things are necessary to wake the people up, but then another level where it’s just retraumatizing. [so it was a question of] can we show the trauma without actually showing somebody shot or strangled or kneeled on?

For instance, we do have a little of the Eric Garner case in the film and I think almost everybody in America could replay that in their head right now and that’s six years later, so our choice was the beginning of the struggle. I know there are a lot of films in this space that have shown a lot of the trauma, and that is something that I think filmmakers really should be thinking a lot about. We thought a lot about retraumatizing [in general] when we were making this film — I feel like we told the story completely and don’t think I didn’t ask all the people that I thought needed to be included, but there are a lot of voices missing in the film [because we asked ourselves] do we need to keep hounding someone to be part of this when we know the experience of retelling this traumatizing experience will be retraumatizing for them? We allowed the people who felt strong enough and clear enough to relay the story to participate and we felt like it was our ethical obligation not to use our arrogance as filmmakers to drag people through their experiences again.

That’s actually interesting for me to hear because I wondered, particularly in the case of the officer’s domestic partner, why you didn’t hear from them, but it sounds like it really did seem to serve a greater purpose not to.

We were trying to center the voices of Asian and Black people, and you may notice in the film that the only people that speak in interview are Asian and Black [because] I care about both communities really deeply and how they’re perceived and have their voices being heard, so we made an effort not to specifically exclude [others], but to really elevate and center the voices of Black and Asian folks. And then [in terms of] family members of the cop, we used a third-party interview for his domestic partner. She’s someone I’m in contact with and she actually shared a lot of archival material with us and was participating in the process, but she felt more comfortable using an interview that had already been done, so we did that, and it may not be the prettiest choice because it’s not in the same style as the other interviews, but I feel okay with it.

Is there anything that changes your ideas of what it could be?

I don’t think I was entirely surprised by the things that unfolded, but I was always really honored by the honesty with which people spoke. It’s important to remember that people do want to tell their stories and they do like to be asked, particularly the Asian community. I made a film before about Chinatown called “9-Man” and I found that when you do give people an opportunity to speak, they have a lot to say, so while I didn’t think I was going to make another film related to Chinatown because I spent seven years making another one before, it feels like that community still doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to speak — I think reporters have a lot of fear of language barriers, etc. — so it’s something that I’m called to do at this point.

There’s a great song that plays over the end credits of the film. How did that come about?

Actually, the first idea I had about that was because I had been speaking to the three men who were standing around the pink houses where Akai was killed, and you’ll see them in the film, they’re really charming and they were all self-professed rappers, so I went home and listened to their music, and I sent it to my co-composer for my last film, Chops, one of the original members of the Mountain Brothers, which was the first Asian-American hip-hop group signed to a major label. He’s like, “This is pretty good,” so that’s when I started having the idea that one thing we could do to uplift this community that went through this trauma was to give them a little boost in their career.

I asked Chops if he’d be willing to come on at a documentary rate to help produce a track if we decided to do that and he said yes right away. Then we ultimately ended up interviewing one of Akai’s friends for the film who goes by Gizz and he’s a great presence and he also is a rapper, so I sent Chops his music as well. We decided that we wanted to [record a song] and he was totally onboard, and what was really beautiful is [Gizz] was so close to Akai that I think it was a process that was quite healing for him to think about reframing his experience and his grief in a way that could help the film talk about the fallout of the terrible trauma of this. So Chops is going to drop that track, and part of it was co-written by our composer Andrew Orkin and I like to give my composers more creative ownership, so they all have co-ownership of it.

Not everybody will know that that end trackis by Akai’s friend, but it is him and Chops performing and I wish all of America had this kind of experience of seeing this young black man come into a studio, [with] his friends were all there helping him write and emotionally supporting him through a lyrical journey that was difficult for him. If more of America could see representation of Black men like that, the love and care they have for one another, their willingness to participate in things that they think will help the community, that would be great.

It’s great to hear this film is already bringing people together.

Yeah, what we wanted to do with the making of this film was to bring these communities together, so we had a rap track written by a mixed race team and we tried to staff heavily with Black and Asian creatives and there was a lot of learning for me, for everybody involved. Our editing team was Black and Asian, and we’re in the edit together for 10 to 12 months, having really deep and nuanced conversations about every frame of the film and it’s such a joy to be able to sit through something like this with somebody of a different experience. I worked first with Michelle Chang, who edited my first film, and then with Jason Harper and my conversations with both of them were very eye-opening. The process of making the film is as important as the film, so I feel lucky to be able to be part of such a great team.

“Down a Dark Stairwell” will screen virtually at the Human Rights Film Festival from June 11th through June 20th, with a live Q & A on June 17th with Ursula Liang, Brandon D. Anderson, the founder of, and Dreisen Heath, Human Rights Watch US Program Advocacy Officer. It will next screen virtually at DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th.

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