In post 9/11 America does the phrase “melting pot” still have meaning? Is the invitation inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty-“Give me your tired, your poor”-still in effect? The citizens of Lewiston, Maine probably didn’t give any more thought to those questions than ordinary people in most places do until hundreds of Somali refugees appeared on their doorstep virtually overnight.
“The Letter” is writer-director Ziad H. Hamzeh’s timely, thoughtful and riveting chronicle of the community’s divided response to both the mass immigration and actions taken by the city administration. On one side of the issue we find local religious leaders, a female former mayor, a black ex-state senator and the state’s governor, who happens to be of Lebanese descent. Along with many in the general population, they extend a welcoming hand and sing the praises of diversity.
On the other is a less enthusiastic demographic composed in part of the unemployed or working poor, concerned that public relief will be diverted to the refugees, members of white supremacist organizations such as The World Church of the Creator, garden variety bigots and Lewiston’s mayor.
At once the controversy’s most pivotal and least visible player, Larry Raymond ultimately reacted to mounting community tensions by drafting a letter to Somali elders asking them to discourage friends, relatives and family members from moving to the city due to the fact that its resources had been tapped out. Picked up by the international press, the letter accomplished little other than the exacerbation of an already volatile situation.
People who wanted to see the refugees leave pointed to the mayor’s words as justification for their own beliefs. Those who felt the Somalis were being treated unfairly pointed out that Raymond had played fast and loose with the fiscal facts, that financial assistance to the refugees in truth amounted to less than 1% of the town’s budget and that the administration had even received extra federal funds to help with the situation.
The filmmaker juggles an impressive number of subjects, including anti-Muslim sentiment, the neo-nazi movement, institutionalized prejudice and the nation’s immigrant heritage. Opposing notions are explored via interviews with Lewiston residents and Maine’s political leadership as well as local and national news footage. Hamzeh keeps the ideas flying and the story building toward a day that made Maine history. On January 11 of this year Lewiston provided the setting for massive rallies on the part of both factions, Somali supporters and a coalition of hate groups. The potential for catastrophe was such that the e vent drew the largest police presence ever assembled in the state.
Maine’s motto is “The Way Life Should Be.” Hamzeh’s film attempts to sort out the impassioned debate as to what exactly that means and to whom it should have meaning. It’s a lot to attempt in 75 minutes and the jury may still be out on the Lewiston experiment. One thing is beyond any doubt though. As an affecting work of compassionate craftsmanship, “The Letter” delivers.