Ziad H. Hamzeh's "The Letter" is an especially dramatic work of polemical reportage on racism in America. The entry of a few hundred Somali refugees in the nearly all-Anglo Maine burg of Lewiston becomes the flashpoint for locals having to deal with diverse, non-Euro cultures for the first time. Pic's commercial hopes are limited.
Ziad H. Hamzeh’s “The Letter” is an especially dramatic, if needlessly frantic, work of polemical reportage on racism in America. The entry of a few hundred Somali refugees in the nearly all-Anglo Maine burg of Lewiston becomes the flashpoint for locals having to deal with diverse, non-Euro cultures for the first time, sparking an inevitable round of bigotry and pleas for tolerance. A sure conversation-starter at festivals, pic’s commercial hopes are limited to specialized video and venues where the choir will be preached to.
A too-rapid 10-minute montage of talking heads imparts the feeling of a town hit by a social and political tornado, beginning with the aftermath of the disastrous U.N. and U.S. involvement in 1993 to calm civil war in Somalia. The human result was a U.S.-sponsored move of Somali refugees, first to crime-ridden ‘hoods in Atlanta, and then (on the initiative of Somali families) to safer communities such as Lewiston.
Lewiston is a study in the American Dream in collapse, as residents describe how this once-thriving Franco-American textile center declined with the closure of Bates Mill, once Maine’s biggest employer. Despite early acceptance of the suddenly arriving Somalis, much of it facilitated by local churches, a terrible combination of old-timer resentment along with the distinctively foreign look of the African residents creates an ideal brew for racism.
A crucial turn for the town, in retrospect, was voters’ failure to re-elect progressive mayor Kaleigh A. Tara (who supports the refugees staying and thriving in Lewiston). Instead, they pick her conservative opponent, Larry Raymond, whose open letter –referred to in the pic’s title — states in effect, that additional Somalis weren’t welcome. Hamzeh splices together participants’ comments as a substitute for conventional narration– an interesting approach to non-fiction narrative. But his hyperactive style has the tendency of opting for effect over substance — until it serves as the dramatic build to neo-Nazi outsiders barnstorming the town to exploit local hatred — and a group of citizens organizing a far larger counter-rally.Some chilling characters are on display, including David Stearns (credited as a “brother” of the World Church of the Creator) who extols complete separation of the races, and white separatist John Fox, who looks like he expected a bigger turnout of bigots in Lewiston than he got.