06/29/2004

Documentary Explores Climate of Fear That Breeds Hate

In January 2003, the Southern Poverty Law Center's outreach staff helped the city of Lewiston, Maine, plan a rally to counter a hate-filled gathering of white supremacists.

The event was a success, with more than 4,000 people attending the diversity rally and fewer than 100 attending the hate rally.

At the same time the rallies were happening, filmmaker Ziad Hamzeh was filming a documentary about the divisive forces affecting Lewiston.

That film, The Letter, has become part of multiple independent film festivals in the months since it premiered.

The title of the documentary refers to an actual letter sent to Lewiston's growing Somali community by Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. The open letter told the 1,000-plus Somalis that they had "maxed-out, physically and emotionally," the city of Lewiston.

Reaction to the letter exposed underlying racism within the town and drew the attention of white supremacist groups who planned the January 2003 hate rally.

Hamzeh said he found very few true racists in Lewiston. What he did find was a climate of fear, which helps to breed hate. "Evil uses ignorance to strike its iron," he said.

Interviewing people for the film, and editing the documentary afterward, Hamzeh found hope.

"I went to Lewiston thinking, 'What do these people have to teach me?' And they taught me a lot," he said. "They taught me to be a better American, a better human being. I was able to relearn and re-experience again what America is."

The Letter was an official selection of the AFI International Film Festival, the opening night feature of the Amnesty International Film Festival, nominated for best documentary at the Pan-African Film Festival, and has since appeared at film festivals in Minnesota, California, Massachusetts and Maine.