SXSW 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! There really is no other city like Hamtramck, USA, the titular subject of Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri’s charming little documentary. With a population of approximately 22,000 people, the town plays home to over 23 different ethnicities. Originally, Hamtramck (pronounced ham-tramick) was predominantly Polish Catholic, until it officially became the “first Muslim majority city of America,” and the first U.S. city to “allow the amplification of the call to prayer.”
As Feltman and Jafri trace the campaigns of two mayoral candidates, they reveal a borderline-idyllic community, wherein neighbors of vastly different backgrounds can smell each other’s meals and hear each other’s prayers. It’s a true melting pot then, a microcosm smack in the middle of this vast nation that actually lives up to that claim. The pace may stumble here and there, but Hamtramck, USA imbues one with both hope and wistfulness. If only we could all follow in good ol’ Hamtramck’s footsteps…
The first of the two candidates is Karen Malewski, “the last in a 100-year line of Polish mayors”, who has been Hamtramck’s mayor for over a decade and plans to be reelected. Running against her is Kamal Rahman, who’s lived in Hamtramck since 1986. This is his first bid for the mayoral office. Though each may represent their respective ethnicities, in Hamtramck, it’s about more than just cultural representation. Both candidates aspire to enrich their community and provide its citizens with an overall better quality of life.
“Both candidates aspire to enrich their community and provide its citizens with an overall better quality of life.”
Hamtramck, USA, contains next-to-no talking heads or interviews. There are no visual or aural embellishments. Feltman and Jafri allow the city and its leaders to speak for themselves. For the most part, their approach pays off, making for a lyrical and heartfelt glimpse at a truly unique place. At times, the lack of stylistic flourishes renders the narrative a bit dry; some more momentum or a truly quirky personality, for example, would have benefited the slightly overlong, somewhat one-sided doc.
Feltman and Jafri also touch upon but never examine the repercussions of Hamtramck being a predominantly Muslim U.S. city. Right after the Paris terrorist attacks, Malewski is seen being asked if she’s afraid. Allowing Muslims to amplify prayers infuriated some of the citizens, who didn’t want religion “forced” upon them. Those are fascinating glimpses that could have used more scrutiny.
But the goal of this documentary is not to be radical or inspire controversy. It’s a gentle account of a blue-collar city that casually embraces diversity, and flourishes because of it. You may not start packing your bags to move to the Midwest upon watching Hamtramck, USA, but it will surely make you reconsider your preconceived notions and potential prejudices.
Hamtramck, USA was scheduled to screen at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival.