Thursday, October 3, 2002, Larry Raymond, Mayor of Lewiston, Maine, releases a 3-page “Open Letter to the Community,” informing the city’s roughly 1,100 new Somali immigrants that they are taxing the local resources and must curb any new arrivals. Perceived as racism by some and as civil responsibility by others, what followed was a firestorm of controversy and the perfect subject for a documentary.
THE LETTER premiered in November at the Arclight Theater in Los Angeles as part of AFI Fest 2003, the film festival of the American Film Institute. Directed by Ziad Hamzeh, the film is an intense chronicle of the events that took place in the small city following the publication of the mayor’s letter and exposes an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. “I had to make this,” says the Syrian-born Hamzeh, who had shot his feature SHADOW GLORIES in Lewiston back in 2000 and still maintained strong ties to the area. “It was an obligation… as an immigrant,” he says, because “[the situation] grabbed me in the heart.”
Initially, Hamzeh personally responded to a plea from former Lewiston mayor Kaileigh Tara to help as the press descended on the mostly white, French-Catholic former mill town. News reports on the problems the city was facing began to appear around the globe, and the city’s reputation was at stake. “I wanted to contribute something personally,” says Hamzeh, who realized on the second day of his trip that the inherent drama of the situation was ripe for a documentary.
“The whole thing was meant to be,” he explains of the almost cosmic forces that allowed the film to come to fruition. Not only was the director allied with the city of Lewiston, but he also spoke the Somali language, which allowed him to get close to their community. “These people trusted me,” he says.
Armed with an arsenal of eight camera people, Hamzeh set out to document as much of the unfolding story as he could. Shooting fifty-five hours worth of footage, “I could have made five documentaries,” he says. As a narrative filmmaker, “I needed to know where the beginning is, where the middle is, where the end is.” As a novice documentarian, it was getting all the “real” pieces to fit into a cohesive story that was a challenge. “I didn’t know how [the story would be played out],” he admits.
When white supremacists decided to stage a hate rally on January 11, 2003, nearly 4,000 others organized a counter peace rally. That day would see the largest police presence in Maine’s history, with the F.B.I, Secret Service and anti-terrorist snipers involved. Hamzeh knew he had an end to the film.
Originally from the theater, Hamzeh never intended to be a filmmaker. “I never really wanted to direct film,” he says. He had done some work directing commercials, but his heart was working around a stage. As the original Artistic Director of the Open Fist Theater Company in Los Angeles he is credited with establishing it as a cutting-edge arena. So it’s Hamzeh’s history in drama that permeates THE LETTER, and is why some people may forget they’re actually watching a documentary.
“I did not rely on conventional documentary” filmmaking techniques, he says, which usually use a narrator to connect stories or dwells on a particular storyline. Instead, the characters - Mayor Larry Raymond, other local politicians, neo-Nazis, church leaders and citizens - lead the viewer down the path through sets of interviews and the film doesn’t focus on just one side of the controversy..
It was important to Hamzeh to show a balanced view of the situation in Lewiston, so he sat with the white supremacists - who thought he was French because of his accent - and got their side of the story as well. “I went to homes and secret meetings,” he reveals, and “I just had to sit there and listen to it.” By getting all the perspectives, he wanted to take the viewer on an all-encompassing journey - something to follow and experience. “I want people to come to their own conclusion,” he says, because “I wanted the situation to be something to examine, not to point a finger at.”
And so far, the reception of the film has been quite positive. THE LETTER is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit and is being courted by HBO, PBS and Showtime as possible television venues. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have requested screenings, and LA Weekly has called it, “A thoughtful, historically grounded, and utterly absorbing look at a quintessential American experience.”
“I want it to be seen where it might provoke someone to change their mind,” explains Hamzeh. “I really want people to see it and start a particular dialogue.”