The Feedback: Li Lu’s ‘A Town Called Victoria’
Victoria is a town in Southern Texas, thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, with a population of roughly 70,000. Victoria’s thriving Muslim community, built up over more than thirty years, is centered in the Victoria Islamic Center and the local mosque. Early in the morning after a newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump announced his “Muslim ban” prohibiting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Omar Rachid, a former mayoral candidate and pillar of Victoria’s Muslim community, received a distraught call from Imam Osama Salah Hassan—the mosque, where they had fostered such a robust community, was on fire. Someone had committed arson.
In Los Angeles, filmmaker Li Lu learned of the fire via social media posts from her community back home in Sugar Land, about an hour and a half west of Victoria. Having grown up so nearby, she felt an overwhelming sense of grief. When nearly 500 people showed up for a peace rally, it gave her hope. A month later, she was in Victoria herself, filming interviews. Over six years later, those initial interviews led to A Town Called Victoria, a nuanced three-part series following the events that take place after the fire, from the attempts of the community to heal and rebuild to the trial of the suspected arsonist. A mix of interviews, verite footage, and candid conversations between community members, the film attempts to unpack not just what happened, but how what happened reflects bigger structural issues every community is facing.
The first episode of A Town Called Victoria was workshopped in Film Independent's screening room in February 2020 as part of IDA’s DocuClub works-in-progress screening series. Last month, the series world premiered at Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival ahead of its November 13 broadcast premiere on PBS as a Reel South and Independent Lens original. Ahead of the premiere, Lu spoke with Documentary about the urge to simplify complex issues, the interconnectivity of oppressive systems, and the importance of caring for your own community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: What struck you most when making the series?
LI LU: The events that we see in the news are not simple; they’re not complicated, they’re complex. Collectively, we tend to shy away from things that are complex, but understanding what makes them complex is fundamental to understanding what’s actually going on. This hate crime was different because the perpetrator was a person of color himself, which opens up much deeper conversations around the concept of white supremacy, power, othering, and generational modes of feeling that are so indicative of a place like South Texas.
I’m a consumer of films and stories first, and I want to watch stories and films that dive into the complexity of it all. I wanted to offer something that was not sheepish in the way that we approach these topics. How can you talk about an act of hate without talking about the current political situation we’re in as a country? How can you talk about that without talking about this country post-9/11, where the perpetrator grew up never knowing what it was like to not be at war in the Middle East? How can you talk about that without talking about patriotism and therefore, masculinity? All of these things are tied together.
D: What sparked your decision to turn it from a film into a series? What were the big challenges that you encountered in making the film?
LL: We knew that it was a series from the beginning. There are too many characters to sustain a feature structure. We knew that we had the responsibility of portraying this community for as many parts as we could, to be as inclusive as we could. The challenge was how to keep filming and sustain ourselves, both resource-wise and spiritually. And then, how do we follow the story? Who do we include? How do we determine who gets included?
What’s beautiful about this mosque is that it’s an American mosque. They speak English. It’s the language of the sermons and the language in which they relate to each other because it’s a tapestry of the world. There are people from all different parts of the world, and also converts from Victoria itself. That’s very unique. As Dr. Hashmi says in the film after the mosque has burned, “This place is like one of my children.”
D: There are a lot of conversations between community members in the series. What was your experience witnessing these communities as they began to unpack everything that happened?
LL: What we captured are the reflections of so many people within this community—their wishes, their wants, their pain points, and things that they’ve held in. What I found interesting in the editorial process was that people are almost talking to each other through the frame. It really showed me the incredible gift of listening and the incredible gift of patience. We get a lot of comments about how many people we got to take part in the film—I think that’s because we took the time to listen.
D: What was the collaboration like with the subjects and the people of Victoria? How did you build that kind of trust and process with them?
LL: I arrived in town about a month or so after the fire. We first filmed for only four days, which is when we filmed a lot of the interviews with the key participants. In the beginning, this was supposed to be a short film about the rally, but I realized that rebuilding the mosque was not going to be easy. After the rally, when people heard that they raised over a million dollars on GoFundMe and that the community seemed to be all okay, people then went home; the cameras went away. But I didn't go away for six years. Over the course of that time, I think I built a profound and intimate bond with our participants because I think they could tell that I cared about the struggle.
D: You screened with DocuClub in Los Angeles in February of 2020, when you were about three years into making the series. What was your biggest takeaway from the screening?
LL: We had had a lot of pressure from a lot of people throughout this process to start with the fire, or the “inciting incident.” But I didn't want to identify people solely by their moment of trauma, or make that the entry point by which we get to know them. I wanted to build that sense of identity to this place, and to give audiences an understanding of what this space means for this community before it’s taken away. Because of the screening, I knew that it felt wrong to begin with the fire. We were able to hone back into our instincts to make that change in the first episode.
This whole series would not have been possible without a village full of people, and I have to share how vital the Islamic Scholarship Fund, Firelight Media, and Austin Film Society were to this project. My first collaborator on this whole project was Halyna Hutchins, and I'm really honored that this piece will be released to the world and show more of her artistry. So I just want to reflect that it took such a huge village of personal friends of mine who did this for next to nothing or for free. Many organizations saw the value of the project and the tapestry we were creating, which gave us a lot of support—not only to the project, but to me as a filmmaker as well.
D: How’s everyone doing in Victoria? How’s the mosque rebuild?
LL: The young people that we knew then are all in college or are young professionals. The babies are now in middle school and high school. A lot of the young people were shielded from what happened, and during one of our private screenings, a lot of them were emotional because they had never seen the video of the fire before.
Even though they came out of this with a new building, I still feel profound sorrow because I think once that safety is taken from you, you can never get it back. That’s the bittersweetness at the end of the film. If you watch the series, one of the main characters makes a pretty stark decision about their future in this community. That’s what I really want people to know—even though this was thankfully an incident where no one lost their life and no one was hurt, there’s such incredible loss when it comes to emotional trauma. For every single news item that comes through our feed, there are repercussions that no one will stay around to report on. I hope that we can hold each other just a little bit more dearly and really be kind to one another, because there are so many scars that are invisible when it comes to discrimination.
Gabriella Ortega Ricketts is an archival producer and actress living in Los Angeles with her partner and their three cats, Hank, Duke, and Archie. At IDA, she is the manager of artist programs and a proud member of the union Documentary Workers United. In her spare time, she paints and bakes pies. Recently, she's taken up attempting to sew.