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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: February 12, 2018

Film students take the pulse of the immigration debate Down East

Written by: Dennis Perkins

The intro to UMaine Machias student film ‘Who Made You in America?’

Photos courtesy of Alan Kryzak

“Frankly, I’m running out of racists.”

That was the warning University of Maine at Machias interdisciplinary fine arts professor Alan Kryszak gave to students in his Downeast Documentary class. It’s a weird thing to be worried about, but, as Kryszak and his students were in the middle of working on their semester-long film project, “Who Made You in America?” about the current state of the immigration debate in Maine (and elsewhere), a diversity of viewpoints was a necessity. Even, as Kryszak explained, when some views on immigration and race were difficult to listen to.

“One person we got to talk to us was a neo-Nazi,” Kryszak said. “It’s pretty hard to find someone so outspoken in their racism who’s willing to be so upfront about it.”

University of Maine at Machias interdisciplinary fine arts Professor Alan Kryszak, whose students spend the semester making a documentary about a social issue.

On the other hand, Kryszak claims that he was able to arrange interviews with a wide variety of Mainers (including fishermen, construction workers, immigrants and native Americans) in the Machias area who were willing, even eager, to talk to him and his student filmmakers about an issue that’s only become more polarized since the most recent presidential election.

“We never said the word ‘Trump,’ ” Kryszak said, explaining the filmmakers’ strategy for assembling the most wide-ranging discussion. “But there’s no question that the present political climate has made things more heated.”

Still, the main message that Kryszak and his student crew took away from the process of making “Who Made You In America” – and the message he hopes viewers will take from it – is that you can’t take anyone’s opinions for granted, no matter what they look like, or where they’re from. Noting that one of the film’s subjects welcomed the filmmakers into a home fairly bristling with Trump and “Hillary for Prison” campaign signs, Kryszak said that he was up-front about the fact that he, personally, wasn’t on the same page as the homeowner. But, he said, the man was friendly, open – and surprising. While he was conservative on the matter of immigration in theory, the filmmakers found that the man was much more amenable on a personal level, having brought into his home a refugee from Haiti who’d come to America after the devastating 2010 earthquake there. Said Kryszak, admiringly, “We kept objectivity to make sure our personal views weren’t imposed on the interviewees. But we discovered scattered folks who aren’t afraid of diversity in America. Jonesport, Machias, Alexander, Grand Lake Stream. These people don’t buy discount torches and show up at rallies, they just live their lives and help out when someone asks, so we never hear about it.”

Harold Cokayne, who was interviewed for the documentary, was conservative about immigration policy, but took in a refugee from the earthquake in Haiti, exemplifying the complexity of people’s feelings.

The hour-long film represents a semester’s worth of hard work by Kryszak’s team of student filmmakers, all of whom, their teacher said, have learned top-to-bottom skills that will help them in their careers going forward. Speaking to two of the class’s students, Nick Reynolds and Avery Grindle, it’s clear how the “all-for-one” approach served to familiarize them with essentially all aspects of filmmaking – even as the film’s subject matter saw them entering into potentially uncomfortable situations, such as their interview with the film’s self-identified white supremacist.

“Being in a small, enclosed space with someone like that was rough,” said Reynolds, “especially since two of our classmates were Chinese immigrants. We spoke to them afterward, and it was clear how much that affected them.” (The other student filmmakers include Phil Atwood, Emellie Johansson, Daijun Liang, Ryan Maker, Zach Peirce, Dyl Robinson, Kellie Sawyer and Hong Xie.)

But Kryszak stressed that the process of making “Who Made You in America?” was largely an exercise in being pleasantly surprised. “You walk up to a guy with a grizzly beard next to a truck in Down East Maine and people think they know what’s going to come out of his mouth,” said Kryszak, “but the people we talked to were a lot more thoughtful and welcoming than I think they get credit for up here.”

One learning experience for Kryszak himself was in seeing how veterans are often the most tolerant of people from other cultures. “We didn’t plan it this way, but we ended up talking to veterans of World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan,” said Kryszak, “and they were each very affected by their time in the service, seeing the world. At one point in the film, the Vietnam vet says that he’s sorry that the WWII vet had to live so long to see the rise in racism and anti-immigrant hate that we’ve seen since Trump’s election in places like Charlottesville.”

The filmmakers also took their equipment up to the Waponahki Museum in Pleasant Point, where the curator, when asked as a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe what she thinks of white supremacists and others’ claim to be “real Americans,” could only laugh.

As both a personal and professional learning experience, Kryszak, Reynolds and Grindle were enthusiastic about their time spent making “Who Made You in America?” The film, which has been submitted to at least one film festival so far, follows in the footsteps of last year’s project, “Whatever Works: Exploring Opioid Addiction,” which, in addition to the festival circuit, saw airtime on Maine Public Broadcasting.

Kryszak chooses the subjects of the semester’s films before the class begins “so students can hit the ground running,” but said that the final feature is always a product of the students’ collective hard work and insight.

To catch their latest thought-provoking film about a vital current issue, you can see the movie’s free premiere at the UMaine Machias Performing Arts Center at 2 p.m. Sunday, with a discussion to follow. After that, the film (as well as last year’s entry) can be seen online for free on YouTube. But try to make it to the premiere. As Kryszak and his student filmmakers learned, Down East Maine has a lot more to offer than southern Mainers traditionally think. Said Kryszak, “The film explores this nation of imports from a coastal New England perspective. It goes deeper than the oversimplification and political polarity we often see in the public discourse today.”


Friday-Sunday: “The Insult.” A seemingly minor argument between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian immigrant blows up into a court case that threatens to inflame violence in an already divided Beirut in this film nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar.

Friday-Sunday: “2018 Oscar Shorts.” Once again, Space helps you be the most informed one in your Oscars pool, hosting two programs of both this year’s live-action and animated short films.

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