The Letter

Shortly after the tragic events of 9/11, a large group of Somali refugees arrived in the small town of Lewiston, Maine. Lewiston was, according to one resident, 97% white, and mostly descended from French immigrants. After the closure of its historic textile mill, the town fell upon hard times. Integrating outsiders, especially in such a homogeneous, economically depressed area is never an easy thing to do. For these Somalis, all black Muslims, this was a powder keg waiting to explode. Ziad Hamzeh (Shadow Glories, Eternal Embrace) takes an in-depth look at what happens in xenophobia grips the people of Lewiston.

The title refers to a letter sent by Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond asking Somalis to tell other Somalis to refrain from moving to Lewiston due to the strain the immigrants caused on city resources. This is an asinine remark for an elected official to make. Yet, Raymond won the office by running on an anti-Somali platform. It was easy to do, since stereotypically, immigrants are viewed as an economic drain on resources and magnets of crime. In reality, Lewiston received government grants and many of the Somalis were highly educated and working. Hamzeh has the great fortune of making The Letter in the information age. As news of Raymond's letter spread and events escalated, the news spread like wildfire, bringing in the international press, and giving Hamzeh much of the excellent footage used in the film. He uses The Letter to detail the fallout from Raymond's moronic missive, and also explores the conditions leading to the letter and why each side felt the way they did. Oddly enough, he never includes the full text of the letter.

Supporters of the Somalis tried to talk to the mayor, but he rebuffed all efforts. The mistrust between everybody intensified, leading to attacks and an air of suspicion. Eventually, two rallies were to take place on January 11. One was organized by the always loony World Church of the Creator, the other by a large group supporting the Somalis and tolerance. Hamzeh takes great pains to ensure that everybody has their say, and effectively builds the tension as events move towards the rallies. The Letter effectively cuts between opposing speeches as both rallies reach their climax.

The saddest aspect of everything in Lewiston was that Somali supporters were not asking for anything extraordinary. They just wanted fairness. Anti-Somalis refused to listen to facts, instead believing rumors and rhetoric. The fact that the World Church of the Creator appeared showed how ridiculous things became. They are a fringe neo-Nazi group known for their violence, and Hamzeh does overdo it with some of the stock footage of violent rallies and saluting skinheads. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Governor of Maine and both US Senators, furiously working to try to repair the public image nightmare created by Raymond. And where was Raymond during all of this? Away on vacation. Although he comes out as the most clueless person in the documentary, a revelation late in the documentary sheds some more complexity on his actions.

Gerf Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 16 minutes, Not Rated but contains some language, a PG-13 or R.

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