Review by Sean Boelman
One of a few documentaries exploring the culture of a particular town that was set to debut at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Hamtramck, USA is a fascinating exploration of the idea of multiculturalism in modern America. Thanks to its strong and urgent ideas, this film serves as a solid snapshot of the moment, even if its stories aren’t fully developed.
Hamtramck, Michigan was formerly a city whose population was comprised almost entirely of Polish immigrants, but now it has become the first Muslim-majority city in America. Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri’s documentary follows a Muslim man in Hamtramck as he runs for city council and the current Polish mayor, who seeks reelection as the first female mayor in the city’s history.
Part of what makes the movie work so well is that it cuts between the two main storylines, creating a parallelism between an immigrant’s quest for greater representation in local government and the systematic oppression of women’s voices in politics. The comparison that Feltman and Jafri are able to build between these two ideas does a good job in making both feel more urgent.
As a whole, Feltman and Jafri’s film encourages a greater sense of community. Feltman and Jafri purport that, only when people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds in America work together will this country become the utopia for all that it was intended to be. Although that is sadly an unrealistic ambition, there is still a lot to learn about empathy and humanity from this movie.
Something interesting about Feltman and Jafri’s approach to the story is that they tend to shy away from both candidate’s policies. Although there is some inevitable discussion in debates and other such public forums, the film is less concerned about the political views of the candidates than what they stand for in the greater picture of the American government system.
That said, the movie doesn’t quite achieve the perfect balance in terms of pacing. Feltman and Jafri seem to recognize that the city council campaign is the more unique of the two stories, and as such, focus more time on it. The mayoral campaign is certainly a necessary part of this story, but it would have been nice to see there be more development in this other portion of the film.
On a technical level, Fetlman and Jafri take an admittedly conventional fly-on-the-wall approach, but that is a tried-and-true method for a political documentary like this. That said, there are some areas in which this movie could have improved. Namely, a better examination of the politicians’ constituents would have been welcome.
Hamtramck, USA may be a more safely-made documentary than its subject material demands, but it still has a lot of interesting ideas that make it a meaningful watch. This film has a very important message of cooperation and bipartisanism in a time that is so divided.
Hamtramck, USA was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.