When news got out that the United States had its first Muslim-majority city — Hamtramck, Michigan — reporters jumped on the story. What would it mean? How was the traditional Polish population reacting? CNN asked the Polish mayor if she was “afraid.”
Filmmakers Justin Feltman and Razi Jafri, who were working in nearby Detroit, saw a different story.
To them, Hamtramck was a city that prided itself on its mantra "The World in 2 Square Miles" and boasted about the more than 30 languages spoken in the schools and the diversity that came with it.
“We looked at the news footage and saw a lot of sensationalized culture clash stories, with people projecting their narratives onto the city,” says Feltman. “We wanted to give that narrative back to the city and let them control it.”
The result is Hamtramck, USA, which premieres on America ReFramed on GBH WORLD on May 25 at 8pm, as part of a slate of new films released during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The series also includes Far East Deep South, which explores the seldom-told history of Chinese immigrants living in the American South during the late 1800s to mid-1900s, and Curtain Up! which follows elementary school kids in New York’s Chinatown as they prepare for a musical production and begin to discover their identities. Both can be streamed here.
A thriving city in the early 1900s, with a growing population of Polish Catholic immigrants, Hamtramck almost a century later is becoming revitalized by Bangladeshi and Yemeni Muslim immigrants. The film tells the city’s story by following the 2017 campaign for mayor and city council. Incumbent Karen Majewski, the first female mayor in the city’s 100-year lineage of male Polish mayors, is challenged by Kamal Rahman, a community activist, and Mohammad Hassan, an eight-year Bangladeshi city councilor. And vying for city councilor is 23-year-old Fadel Marsoumi, one of the few Iraqis in the city.
“We wanted to show the earnest soul-searching of the candidates as they wrestled with the best way to represent this city,” says Feltman.
“We wanted to explore the question of what does democracy look like in a Muslim-majority city?” says Jafri. “What we found is that it looks like democracy in any other place. It's messy, it’s disorganized, it's a lot of street fighting. But it's also beautiful at the same time.”
The filmmakers have created a complementary impact campaign through a collaboration with Doha Debates, a discussion and consensus-building organization. They have developed a curriculum for educators, teachers and librarians to inspire young people to get involved in their communities.
“There's a misunderstanding about places where there are large immigrant communities — that the immigrants who are running for office only care about their own issues,” says Jafri. “But they care about clean roads and water, public health and safety — the things that are important to everybody.”