A new documentary tugs at the tense threads of diversity and community in an evolving city.
As anti-immigrant sentiments take root in our culture and political discourse, the complex realities of life in an immigrant community are often sidelined for more sensational stories. Documentary filmmakers, Razi Jafri of Detroit and Justin Feltman of Washington, D.C., have tackled those complexities head-on in their new project, “Hamtramck, USA.”
Hamtramck didn’t get the nickname “the world in two square miles” for nothing. For an illustration of the city’s dense diversity, look no further than its public school system, where students speak more than 20 different languages. With a population of just 22,000, Hamtramck is a small-scale pressure cooker for many of the same issues gripping the nation.
Jafri and Feltman’s doc follows the mayoral and city council races in the 2017 citywide elections, focusing on the candidates’ relationships with various ethnic communities living side-by-side. More broadly, the film explores what it means to welcome immigrants into a community.
The filmmakers, who met in 2016, share a passion for telling stories about underrepresented communities. Their project materialized when Mayor Karen Majewski gave them permission to follow her reelection campaign. Ultimately, Majewski held onto her seat, beating challenger Councilman Mohamed Hassan by more than 700 votes (significant in a race where fewer than 4,000 ballots were cast). Hassan, an immigrant from Bangladesh, would have been the first Muslim mayor in a city where the Yemeni and Bangladeshi Muslim populations together now hold a majority.
That’s just one of the threads Jafri and Feltman follow in their film. DETOUR caught up with them to talk about the surprise winner of the 2017 elections, why you can’t call Hamtramck a melting pot and more.
DETOUR: So, what's “Hamtramck, USA” all about?
Jafri: The film examines the benefits and tensions of multiculturalism and diversity through the lens of Hamtramck’s 2017 municipal elections.
Feltman: The main story through and through is about how, during the election, different communities came up with candidates, but not everyone in their community voted for the person that they shared an identity with. So all the candidates had to campaign in order to cross cultural lines and reach out to different communities to get their votes. Ultimately, they had to convince voters that while they didn’t come from the same ethnic and cultural background they were still their best representative.
Can you share an example of how you captured these benefits and tensions in the film?
Feltman: We interviewed Fadel [Marsoumi], who ended up running for city council and winning. He’’s a young Iraqi and he was told he wasn’t going to get the votes of Polish, Yemeni or Bengali people because he was Iraqi. However, he ended up winning because he was able to unite people from these different groups around their shared experience of growing up in Hamtramck.
What are some of the documentary’s main takeaways?
Jafri: That immigrants and other minorities are deeply invested in the collective success of the United States, no matter their background.
Feltman: The U.S. often refers to itself as a melting pot. However, beliefs formed from the many religions and cultures do not melt down into one. Hamtramck is, in many ways, an experiment that strives for the preservation of and acceptance of all these identities under one city.
Would you say what Hamtramck is experiencing is unique, or representative of what many communities are working through?
Feltman: In many ways, Hamtramck is unique. For one thing, it became the first city with a “Muslim majority” city council in 2015. For another, it’s always had a Polish mayor at the head of the city, but the Polish community is now down to 10 to 14 percent.
However, I think the idea of a community’s identity evolving and demographics shifting are relatable no matter if it’s in Hamtramck or where you call home. The Census Bureau projects that by 2042 a majority of Americans will be people of color.
How will you know or measure if this project was a success?
Feltman: As first-time filmmakers, completing a film is just an accomplishment in and of itself. But I think I really just want people to know the story of Hamtramck -- both its rich history and future. I want to give this city a film they can be proud of, and they feel is authentic to their experience.
When will people be able to see this film and where?
Feltman: Thanks to a soon-to-be-announced grant, we will be able to air a broadcast version of our film through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in late 2019. We will also be entering festivals around the country and the world. You can stay up-to-date by following “Hamtramck, USA” on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or by visiting our website.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Erin Gold is a Detroit-based independent journalist. When she is not writing about Detroit, she is mostly managing events at Pages Bookshop or working on her latest stained glass creation. You can find her on Instagram at @erinegold, on Twitter @erine_gold or learn more about her at erinegold.com.