Over four million people visit the Statue of Liberty each year. Because the original museum inside the statue couldn’t handle the crowds, on October 6, 2016, construction began for a new museum. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg led the fundraising campaign. Although she was obviously aware of the statue and what it meant to generations of immigrants coming to America, becoming involved with the new museum took her on a very personal journey. The result is the HBO documentary, Liberty: Mother of Exiles.
At the groundbreaking for the museum, Von Furstenberg was awarded the title “Godmother of the Statue of Liberty” for her fundraising efforts. “What she represents out there is everything that has to be protected,” she said. “Lady Liberty is like a logo for freedom. But she has a face and she has a story and the story behind her is this fight for freedom.” Von Furstenberg came to the U.S. in 1970. She decided to travel by boat and so was one of many whose first glimpse of New York was seeing the statue in the harbor. “It doesn’t matter how many times you see her,” she says. “She’s always special.”
Since the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886, Lady Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to America. Yet immigration policies under the Trump Administration now threaten what the statute stands for – a beacon for democracy to those seeking a better future for themselves and their families.
Black and white footage of early arrivals, men and women laughing and crying as they glimpse the statue, is juxtaposed with current students from Ellis Prep which helps immigrants get a high school education in New York. Several are interviewed and talk about the dire conditions they left behind in their countries and how fortunate they feel to be in America. Throughout the documentary, countries of origin are superimposed on those on screen. (Even Steven Miller, the main architect for the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, speaks while Belarus identifies where his relatives came from.)
Leading a group tour, a U.S. Park Service ranger who came to the U.S. from Grenada tells a group: “No one thought America would work out because America was experimenting with a very crazy idea which no one else in the world had much success with at that time – democracy. In the rest of the world there were kings and queens and royal families. So the United States is embarking on this new system of government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
One person who was impressed with America’s experiment was a French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. “All his life was dedicated to his art, but also dedicated to a certain idea of mankind, the ideal humanity, fraternity, universality, cooperation between the nations,” according to his biographer, Robert Belot. The statue would be a present from the French people to the American people to symbolize the importance of democracy.
At the New York Public Library, Von Furstenberg reads a diary that Bartholdi kept chronicling the trip he took to America to find support for the statue. Von Furstenberg travels to France to learn more about Bartholdi and his tireless efforts to raise the funds that were needed, not from the French elite, but from the people. To construct the statute, Bartholdi worked with Gustave Eiffel who built the statute’s metal framework.
Von Furstenberg is the perfect guide for the documentary. She’s charming, intelligent, curious and has a talent for putting people at ease. Outside MoMA, she meets Denis Ouch, a street artist from Moscow, whose paintings feature the statute but as a vehicle for making a statement against injustice. He tells her: “At first she was a symbol of freedom, then I realized that freedom is not free.” After being arrested twice, a crackdown by the police against street artists, Ouch painted the statute covered in barbed wire.
Along the way, Von Furstenberg shares her own story. Her mother was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the war. She survived, went back to Belgium, got married and had her daughter. “She always used to say, God saved me, so that I could give you life and by giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom,” she says. “So my mother gave me this torch of freedom and I’m helping Lady Liberty to carry her torch of freedom.”
The new museum on Liberty Island opened on May 16, 2019. For more information go to the website.
Liberty – Mother of Exiles can be seen on HBO on demand.
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