The Spool / Festivals
SXSW: “Hamtramck, USA” Tests the Great American Melting Pot
America's first Muslim-majority city learns the limits (and victories) of multiculturalism.
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America’s first Muslim-majority city learns the limits (and victories) of multiculturalism.

(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. While the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)

Not too long ago, the sleepy Michigan town of Hamtramck (pronounced “ham-tram-ick”) was 90% Polish — and, as the catchy ’50s jingle that open Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri‘s documentary Hamtramck, USA indicate, intensely proud of that fact. But in the last two decades, as older Polish residents die off and newer immigrants come in from Muslim countries like Syria and Iraq, Hamtramck has become America’s first Muslim-majority city.

What does that mean for everyday life in Hamtramck? And how does the town pick the right leader to represent such a diverse citizenry? These questions are the focus of Feltman and Jafri’s film, a personable, warm and insightful look at just what happens when America’s values of multiculturalism are put to the test.

Apart from a few scant clips from Fox News (in which selectively-culled clips are pulled to sensationalize the town’s mostly-Muslim population), Hamtramck, USA is remarkably gentle in its presentation of the town’s 2017 mayoral and city council races. The central figures at play represent a cross-section of Hamtramck’s differing populations: among others, there’s Kamal Rahman, a Bangladeshi Muslim running for mayor; Fadel al-Marsoumi, an Iraqi immigrant and city council candidate; Mohammed Hassan, another mayoral candidate; and Karen Majewski, the incumbent (and first female) Polish mayor.

Each of them have their own styles, dynamics, and concerns for the community, and (most interestingly) differing levels of cultural literacy for Hamtramck’s diverse citizenry, and Feltman and Jafri capture them with a fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Majewski makes a significant impact, the kind of mayor who walks the streets of Hamtramck and says hello to people, and who tries her best to reach out to the Muslim communities of the town. (Her participation in an Eid Mubarak ceremony late in the doc is especially encouraging.) Then there’s city council candidate Ian Perotta, whose attempts to craft Bengali-language campaign ads is endearingly awkward.

A personable, warm and insightful look at just what happens when America’s values of multiculturalism are put to the test.

But al-Marsoumi also impresses, a young, warm bear of a man who seems to genuinely care about his community and the people he would serve. “You’re kinda like the bear from Jungle Book,” Yemeni community activist (and campaign advisor) Abraham Aiyash jokes. Their dynamic is one of the doc’s true highlights, even as their discussions turn towards conflicting visions of how class factors into their community’s struggles. Aiyash is a particularly charming presence, a figure of Leslie Knope-like optimism for the value of the democratic process — he hands out roses to constituents while wearing a suit, Bachelor-style, in a well-meaning attempt to show them the value of community engagement. “There’s a difference between unity and uniformity,” he warns his fellow Muslim candidates — the overarching lesson? Muslim-Americans can be Americans without having to give up their Muslim-ness.

Despite the culturally-charged environment Feltman and Jafri entered into, Hamtramck, USA is hardly a tense tale of simmering racial tensions between a dying white populace and scary foreigners coming in to change the nation. While the town still seems fairly segregated by race, there are few (if any) instances of outright racism from white to brown in the city; likewise, there’s hardly any scaremongering about Sharia law. Backyard barbecues exist hand-in-hand with calls to prayer from the muezzin. Indeed, major fractions seem to exist between different subsets of Muslims, from Bangladeshi Muslims to Yemeni Muslims and beyond. And even then, there’s a shared cultural experience that binds them all together, something which the filmmakers capture with a muted grace.

Amongst all the politicking and campaign strategy, Hamtramck, USA presents maybe the most good-faith, above-board election you could imagine: a simple battle of well-meaning candidates who seem to genuinely want the best for their citizens. The doc’s not perfect: more real estate could have been spent on how the dwindling Polish population of Hamtramck feels, apart from a peaceful sense of resignation at their interests no longer being the prevailing priority of the town. But as Tip O’Neill famously said, “all politics is local,” and Hamtramck, USA‘s politics are as local as they come.

As political docs go, it’s hardly The War Room in terms of building tension, but its dedication to highlighting the best of Hamtramck’s diverse populace is admirable and heartwarming. In these cynical times, it’s enough to make you believe there are still places in America where democracy exists.