The city of Lewiston is coming to the big screen in a powerful documentary with an important message.
But the story director Ziad Hamzeh's The Letter: An American Town and the Somali Invasion tells of the old mill town is not an easy one to hear. This is because The Letter is about something many Mainers believe they are far away from?racism.
"[People in Lewiston] were surprised. They thought this couldn't happen here. They thought they were protected," Hamzeh, 45, said in an interview with the Orient.
Hamzeh's first documentary and third feature recounts a difficult chapter in Lewiston's history?one that earned the town much negative media attention and even attracted white supremacist groups to rally in the region.
In October 2002, then-Lewiston mayor Laurier T. Raymond made headlines when he sent an open letter to members of the city's growing community of Somali refugees asking them to tell other Somalis to stop moving to the city.
"It allowed people to start saying, 'Maine is a bad place, and Lewiston is a terrible city,'" said Hamzeh, who lives in Massachusetts.
According to a the Portland Press Herald, Mayor Raymond asked the refugees to "show some discipline," and wrote that the city was "maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally" and could not take in more Somalis without "negative results for all."
For some in the community, the mayor's actions were perfectly justified, considering Lewiston's long-standing economic struggles. The influx of Somalis was quick?the Press Herald reported that 1,060 refugees had arrived in the city between February 2001 and October 2002 from larger urban centers in the U.S., looking for a better place to raise their families.
But for many, Raymond's letter was a sign of something uglier.
"Some came out in support of the mayor...but as the world [made clear] by its interest, this truly was a question of racism," said former Lewiston mayor Kaileigh Tara, who appears in the film, in an email to the Orient.
In the aftermath of the letter, allegations of racism shook city officials and residents alike. National news networks came to town to cover the scandal. Then the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group, announced that it would hold a rally in the city in January 2003 in support of the mayor's cause.
"We fought so hard to change our image. And in one letter...Mayor Raymond created an image of us that would take a lot of marketing dollars to fix?if it can be fixed. Can you change a reputation of racism?" Tara said.
Hamzeh had already made one film in Lewiston, Shadow Glories, when Tara sent him an email asking for help. Hamzeh obliged, and quickly set about documenting the fears, attitudes, and community responses he saw unfolding in Lewiston.
"Personally, it put my energy in a positive area," he said.
While the film deals specifically with Lewiston's struggles, Hamzeh intended for its universal message of acceptance to reach all communities across the country and serve as a warning of what can happen when intolerance takes hold of a community.
"Unless [people] look at it, the same thing that happened in Lewiston is going to happen in other U.S. cities like it," Hamzeh said.
While making The Letter was a rewarding experience in many ways, Hamzeh did not make the movie for the money.
"Profit? I didn't make a penny," he said.
Although it has earned positive reviews this year in The New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter, among others, The Letter has not been released professionally.
Not that Hamzeh really minds.
"You wake up and you go to sleep and you didn't get rich and it's okay," he said. "I know what I've done?I've contributed to an understanding of what's really going on," he said.
Much of his passion for that understanding has come from his own encounters with discrimination, especially since 9/11.
"The U.S. was falling victim to the same issue that the country I ran away from was dealing with," said Hamzeh, a Syrian native who came to the U.S. in 1979. "People would look at me and say, 'Oh you know terrorists, don't you?' But no, I don't."
Hamzeh came face to face with hate while making The Letter, when he sat down with David Stearns, a leader of the World Church of the Creator who preached intolerance in the group's Lewiston rally and delivers many of the most shocking lines in the film. It was a critical interview?but that did not make it easy.
"It was very difficult to put your feelings aside and be insulted," Hamzeh said. "There were times I thought, oh my God, I want to get up and strangle this guy. But my job is to finally find the truth. This is not about me, but about a much bigger issue in the U.S."
As far as Lewiston is concerned, Hamzeh saw the film became an important part of the community's healing process.
After the film's premiere in Lewiston on January 24, 2004, "people came up on stage [after the film] and started apologizing to each other. It was a great beginning," he said.
Tara, who has seen the film several times, said "it always takes my breath away."
"As a person going through the crisis, as a leader hoping to make a difference on behalf of the minority groups in the community...I think it accurately reflects the flow of events," she said.
Hamzeh said he hopes the screening next weekend in Brunswick will help people become aware that racial discrimination can happen anywhere, even in Maine.
"I hope they will have the same understanding that I did, that immigrants should be welcome, that tensions cannot be resolved by violence."
The Letter: An American Town and the Somali Invasion will premiere Friday, April 29 at the Eveningstar Cinema, with showtimes at 3:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. through Thursday, May 5. Ziad Hamzeh will discuss his film after Saturday's performance. For ticket information, call 729-6796.