The Letter: An American Town and the 'Somali Invasion' Reviews

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½ September 1, 2010
Because Community Is Now Fluid

Any influx of immigrants brings with it social and economic changes. It is simply a fact. In what we for some reason call "economically depressed" areas, those changes can be severe, and in small communities, they can be horribly complicated. Communities get set in their ways. And, of course, any large and largely homogeneous crowd of immigrants will make an easy target in Outsidership. If they wear different clothes, don't speak the language, and worship in a different place, they're an easy target. If their skin is a different colour, well, they're not really going to be able to hide.

According to the census statistics currently on Wikipedia for Lewiston, Maine, the population was slightly over one percent "African-American." Those statistics are out-of-date and were when this movie was made, because by the point at which this movie was made, Somali refugees had begun migrating there; estimates now hold that some 4000 have made their way into Lewiston, rather noticeable in a city of under 40,000 people. These were people escaping ethnic violence in Somalia of a nature more complicated than I'm really going to go into here. They came to the United States as refugees, then they found their way to Lewiston in the belief that it would be a nice place to raise their families. However, they were very much Outsiders, being black, Muslim, and immigrants, and not everyone was exactly thrilled to have them there. Then-mayor Laurier T. Raymond wrote a letter asking Somali leaders to keep their people from moving to Lewiston, because the city couldn't afford the social services and the new residents were a drain on the city's infrastructure and they were all unskilled and none of them spoke English. And things went pretty predictably from there.

The problem I have is that the movie didn't go into enough detail about the mayor's numbers. They say his figures were wrong, but elsewhere, I've read that the unemployment figures in that community are still far higher than in Lewiston at large. I absolutely agree that the mayor had no right publishing an open letter of such a nature in the paper. Certainly he could not then realistically express surprise at being called a racist. Inasmuch as there were Somali leaders with whom one might consult, it would certainly have been more tactful had he done so. It is also undeniably true that there were those using any problems Lewiston might have been having to their own advantage, and the film gives us those. People came in with their own agendas, but that's probably true on both sides. Without hard numbers, it's difficult to reach an objective opinion on the impact 4000 immigrants from [i]anywhere[/i] have had.

The inevitable white supremacist claim is that those speaking in favour of diversity mean "except for white people." However, one of the interesting discussions about the Lewiston situation is that the more conservative Somali parents are going to be losing their children in certain ways to Americanization. Indeed, I would argue that another failing of the film is its lack of any viewpoints from the average Somali. It's probably hard to talk to some of them; the film doesn't seem willing to admit it, but there are actually English-language classes required for a lot of those immigrants. However, it would be nice if it felt as though anyone were trying. Yes, a number of those Somali immigrants want very much to keep their way of life as it was, but they aren't going to be able to. Maybe the Somali culture will leave an imprint on general Lewiston culture. Doubtless it will, in fact. But do people really think the Somali culture will remain pure after more than a generation in Maine?

And that's the real issue, of course. At one point, someone specifically scoffs at the argument that, after all, they are descended from immigrants as well. However, their rejection of it is just foolish--"they're not here." In a generation, maybe two or three, the Somali immigrants to Lewiston will be not unlike the "Franco-American" people at the cultural hall where the two groups first started encountering one another. A lot of Americans still celebrate their Irish or Italian or German heritage. There's a town up north of here which makes a big deal about Scandinavian ancestry. And so forth. I have a friend who says there's no racism in Maine, which I've always found a ludicrous assertion. This film shows that to be exactly what I think it is. However, given another fifty years, the Somali "invasion" will be just one more thing for Lewiston to brag about in its varied history.
April 5, 2005
[font=Times New Roman][size=3]The Letter," an accomplished, vibrating, fast-paced documentary by Syrian-American Ziad Hamzeh and crew whose eight cameras rolled for a total of 55 hours, takes a strong viewpoint for the Somalis and for American idealism. While it does give time to the mayor's contention that the city just did not have the resources to accommodate that sudden addition of refugees, it does not allow much, if any, to the eventual economic solution. Rather, this is about racism. In bitter, large doses. The mayor's 3-page "Open Letter to the Community" of Oct. 3, 2002 advises the 1,100 Somali immigrants that they are straining the town's resources and, explicitly, that they should not invite any more of their people to come. The assertions true or not, the blunt and tactless words drew all media attention to this beleagured and completely overwhelmed mayor who appears in the film as possibly sincere but too small in his perceptions to handle the issues involved. As the presence of the White Supremacists looms, he decides to take a vacation in Florida. As Hamzeh's cameras and film editors go to work, we are drawn into the rage of the town's unemployed and fearful. The locals, not used to people of color in the community, vent their frustrations in contorted shouts of anger as rumor and imagination run rampant with invented charges and bizarre statements born of hysteria. Emotional close-ups dominate the film, the twisted faces of hate intertwined with those of reason, so skillfully designed by Hamzeh that absolutely no conventional narration is needed. Racism, and the reactions for and against it, tell their own story.[/size][/font]

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[font=Times New Roman][size=3]Gratifyingly, the film shows, the agony of the event may have been worth it, in the end strengthening the old Maine racial acceptance tradition and exposing the inanities and ignorance of agitators. It is dynamic, focused and compelling.[/size][/font]
November 9, 2004
[color=black][font=Tahoma]You will find The Letter a film that is worthy of your time and respect. It combines the power of filmmaking and the passivity that we so desperately need today. Director Hamzeh was able to see the shimmering light that represents what [/font][/color][color=black][font=Tahoma]America[/font][/color][color=black][font=Tahoma] is about. The Letter will surly earn its way into your heart.[/font][/color]
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