Aimed at challenging the perception of the Muslim community in the United States at a time when anti-immigrant and Islamophobic tensions are at an all time high, Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman‘s Cinéma vérité feature directs its cameras towards the titular Michigan-based town, which holds the distinct title of being America’s first Muslim-Majority City. Over the course of five months, this gentle and intimate metropolitan portrait focuses on the city’s
Ahead of the film’s screening at this year’s Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, I had the chance to talk with the film’s co-director, Justin Feltman, about his documentary, the most difficult day of shooting, how they shaped their vision of Hamtramck and the film’s festival reception.
Alex Lines for Film Inquiry: How did the production of Hamtramck, USA begin?
Justin Feltman: I’m from DC and I came up to Detroit to work on a piece on underrepresented voices in American democracy during the 2016 Presidential Election. I met Razi who connected me with various community leaders and activists. As we watched the results come in that night, we knew our work had just begun. We looked to Hamtramck and knew we had to tell the story of this city. Once we saw they had a mayoral election the following year, I left all my film equipment with Razi so he could immediately start working on it. Then I moved up a few months later.
Watching this film, I felt quite a strong Frederick Wiseman influence, would you say that’s correct, and what else would you say influenced the film’s design and structure?
Justin Feltman: I think that’s fair. We didn’t set out to make his style of films and we didn’t study his work really but we really appreciate that dedication to showing people as they are and letting the world kind of unfold before you. A lot of press around Hamtramck seemed very sensational and we really wanted to let the city speak for itself.
Have you been in touch with any of the subjects involved since finishing the film? What was their reaction?
Justin Feltman: We keep in contact with them all but they haven’t seen it yet. We were going to bring the four main characters to SXSW before it got cancelled. Freep Film Festival in Detroit is still hoping to put on an in-person festival toward the end of the year so hopefully, that works out and we can do a screening and Q&A with everyone then.
Were there any personalities or major aspects of Hamtramck that you had to cut out in editing?
Justin Feltman: Always the toughest part, right? We’re currently working on an hour cut for broadcast and it’s just so tough to let go of certain scenes you fall in love with. I’d say we were able to get in a little bit of everything into the life montages but Hamtramck does have a really incredible music scene. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work to get those acts in there. We also can never get enough of Fadel and Abraham’s conversations. They were always so honest with each other and about the city and the work that needed to be done. It was really quite refreshing.
What would you identify as your most difficult day of shooting?
Justin Feltman: Election days were really tough to pull off. They’re all-day affairs and you’re trying to follow all the candidates at once as they go all over town as they try to make their last-second pitches and get supporters to the polls. However, filming Kamal’s mom’s funeral was particularly hard. We had developed great relationships with all the people in the film, including Kamal. The loss was huge for Kamal and his family and it didn’t help that it happened around the time of the election.
One of the things we realized during the course of filming was that we weren’t just filmmakers observing and documenting the candidates from a distance, we had developed relationships and connections with them. In a situation like that, it’s very difficult to balance your friendship with your responsibilities as a filmmaker. Razi, who was attending the prayer service, then drove to the gravesite with Kamal and his family and was given permission to film the personal moment. Later, we interviewed Kamal and talked about his relationship with his mom and the impact of that loss. By the end, we were all in tears.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that you wanted the film to be much more subversive instead of argumentative – what is the general media – supported view of Hamtramck in the United States, and why do you feel its image has been so sensationalised?
Justin Feltman: I think a lot of coverage seems to project whatever they want onto Hamtramck. A lot of writing we read would claim that “it’s a clash of civilizations”, “a multicultural future vs the white old guard”, and others would just straight up use the city to spread Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments. As we showed in the film, CNN had the mayor on and their first questions were, “You live in a Muslim majority city, are you afraid?”
What seemed to be missing is how the city viewed itself and what it’s like to live here day today. And, for the residents who come from all over the world, how do they want to be represented in politics and to those outside the city? These ideas were much more fascinating to us and so we knew we needed to let them speak for themselves.
Hitting the festival trail in 2020, which has been such a fiery and politically – seismic year so far, do you feel your film will be viewed differently by audiences now and has it unveiled any contextual/thematic levels that you first weren’t aware/explicitly thinking of?
Justin Feltman: Since all the festivals from SXSW onwards have been cancelled, postponed, or moved online, we have not gotten the same amount of feedback that in-person festivals provide. However, we have done a few educational screenings, which have gone really well. We’ve shown the film to college, HS, and elementary students and all had really great questions and feedback. They really appreciated the film and the candidates.
After playing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, what are the distribution plans for the film at this moment?
Justin Feltman: We’re working on a few deals stateside that we hope to be announcing shortly for broadcast and streaming. We are working on finding distributors outside of North America. We also will continue to play at online festivals and hopefully in-person ones as well toward the end of the year. But we’re very excited to bring the film to Melbourne and grateful to have an opportunity to bring the film to an Australian audience.
Film Inquiry thanks Justin Feltman for taking the time to talk with us.
Hamtramck, USA will be playing at The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020, which will be streaming online from June 30th til July 15th, information about ticket prices and the full program is available here: http://mdff.org.au/
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