BRATTLEBORO — “Utica: The Last Refuge,” a documentary highlighting successful refugee resettlement efforts in a New York community, will be shown to local audiences starting this week.
“We are excited,” said Loch Phillips, director of the film. “We believe Utica, as an example, needs to be shared. That’s the basic idea. This happened in Utica but it can be replicated in lots of different things. It’s a great means of community building.”
The Latchis Theatre in downtown Brattleboro will be screening “Utica” from Off Ramp Films at 7 p.m. Friday followed by a question-and-answer session. Other showings are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, then 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Admission is by a suggested donation of $10 and bigger contributions are welcome in support of the filmmakers and the Latchis.
“Given that Brattleboro has begun to resettle Afghan refugees, the films offers a chance to see how refugees positively impacted another small town,” states a news release from Latchis. “Never before has a film so carefully documented this aspect of resettlement and its contribution to the wider community. The message is clear: If it can happen there, why not here as well?”
According to the news release, the film follows the Azein family from Sudan when they arrive as refugees in the United States in 2017, as a White House administration hostile to refugees is sworn in. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, the film shows how a refugee resettlement agency was tasked with helping the family make a difficult transition as the agency itself struggled.
Phillips said he’d been making films about refugees and resettlement for a while, and his crew came to understand how well the program in Utica works and wanted to make a longer film about it. Having gone to nearby Hamilton College, he had left the area in 1983, then his cameraman told him the city had a great story to tell.
“It was a low point when I left so I was surprised to hear this,” he said.
Utica started resettling refugees in the 1970s, taking in Amerasians. Resettlement grew in the 1990s, with Bosnians coming to the city. They happened to be really good at construction, Phillips said, so their work was very visible in the community.
“They used stucco so you could see immediately the transformation that was taking place in the functional look of the city,” said Leigh Rae, producer of the film.
Industry is beginning to return to the area and the resettlement center is placing increasing numbers of refugees with local companies that appreciate the reliability of the workers, according to the news release.
Having shown the film twice in Utica, Rae noticed many people there recognize that they came from immigrant families.
“So even if they’re not first-generation, they realize that this is good for their city,” she said.
Phillips said the city’s population went from a high of about 103,000 in the 1960 down to about 60,000 in the 1980s, and refugees with their children currently make up about 20 percent of the population. Now, with a big influx of African and Burmese refugees, the population stands at about 62,000.
Without the refugees, Phillips said, Utica would lose its metropolitan status. That would occur if population dipped below 50,000.
Off Ramp Films is working on showing “Utica” in other areas where refugee resettlement is occurring.
“But Brattleboro is really the first,” Phillips said. “We’re really excited about this for that reason.”
Rae said the film has been shown in colleges and universities, particularly in upstate New York. She lives in nearby Montague, Mass., and described being excited to have the local community view it.
Phillips, who resides in Brooklyn, said he wants people to see what the larger resettlement project looks like and how it benefits communities in the long term rather than the short term. He noted refugees bring a lot of community spirit and family-centered thinking, and end up strengthening the local economy.
His film paints refugees in “a really positive light” and volunteers involved in resettlement as “local heroes,” he said. Rae, who also went to college in the Utica area, said she became involved with the film because she believes in the issue and in Phillips’ work.
“I have been doing outreach,” she said. “It just so happens I’m here in Western Massachusetts and want to bring it to a place like Brattleboro, which has all the ingredients of incredible success for refugee resettlement.”
Friday’s question-and-answer session will include Phillips, Kirsten Martsi, manager of education and community engagement at Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center, Sohaila Nabizada, a new Vermonter from Afghanistan who works with the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), and Joe Wiah, director of the ECDC Brattleboro office. Martsi has worked to support refugees in communities through the northeast including in Utica.
“We’re happy to do what we can to support the successful resettlement of refugees in our community and nurture the embrace of resettlement efforts elsewhere,” Jon Potter, executive director of the Latchis, said in the news release.
A trailer for the film and more information are at lastrefugedocumentary.com.