'Liberty: Mother of Exiles' Is "Ultra Relevant," Say Filmmakers

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From left: Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey, Diane von Furstenberg, Sheila Nevins, Jason Blum, Nancy Abraham and David Copperfield

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the political timeliness of the Statue of Liberty documentary.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the duo behind shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and Million Dollar Listing, have produced documentaries on Carrie Fisher, a group of commercial beekeepers and infamous 1990s club promoter Michael Alig. But for the last few years, they've turned their focus to New York's Statue of Liberty.

At Monday night's premiere of Liberty: Mother of Exiles, the two explained that they actually started working on the documentary before Donald Trump because president.

"Little did we know that everything that would happen in the next three years only makes what Lady Liberty stands for even more important than ever," Bailey told The Hollywood Reporter. "I think it made the film ultra-relevant."

Since 2016, the statue has not only become an epicenter for immigration protests, but also a talking point for Trump administration officials. For example, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, suggested the poem inscribed on the statue's pedestal — The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus — be rewritten as "Give me your tired and your poor — who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." 

White House advisor Stephen Miller also took a dig at the poem, dismissing its importance because, in his opinion, it's "not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty."

Barbato called Miller's comments "inaccurate," which Bailey said was "very generous." 

"I think it’s a deliberate lie. Because the poem was actually written to raise money to build the pedestal, without which you couldn’t put the statue up," Bailey added. "So, the poem is integral to the statue."

He noted the particular line, "From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome," as being "the exact opposite of building a wall to keep people out."

In spite of all of this, Liberty isn't a politically charged film. As Bailey put it, the documentary is "a journey of discovery," exploring the statue's history and cultural significance. Before embarking on the journey, the doc opens with the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Statue of Liberty Museum, which took place earlier this year.

Diane von Furstenberg, who served as an executive producer on the film, played a large role in the museum's relocation from the statue's pedestal. At the premiere, she attributed her involvement to years of being asked to join the board of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation by its president and CEO, Stephen Briganti.

"I got more and more interested," said von Furstenberg, explaining that she made up her mind after writing her 2014 memoir The Woman I Wanted to Be. "In the book, I put a little note about my mother. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was actually in Auschwitz for 13 months before I was born. And she wrote me a little note that said, ‘God saved me so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom.’ "

Von Furstenberg said Briganti then sent her this excerpt, underlining "torch of freedom." So she joined the board — with the condition that she be named the "godmother" of Lady Liberty — and ultimately led the museum's fundraising campaign. The designer not only raised $100 million, but also commissioned an augmented reality app from Apple CEO Tim Cook, which allows users to transport to the top of the statue, see how New York's skyline has transformed over the years and more.

Both Jason Blum and Sheila Nevins, who were also executive producers on Liberty, told THR that they joined the film at the request of von Furstenberg. 

"It was in her heart and in her soul," Nevins said. "She was very invested in this."

While introducing the film, von Furstenberg said, "The Statue of Liberty is like the sun. She warms everybody and doesn’t ask for anything in exchange."

Liberty: Mother of Exiles is set to premiere Oct. 17 on HBO.