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‘For the Love of Rutland’ Documents Public and Private Sides of the Refugee Debate


Published March 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

MAD IN MARBLE CITY Mayor Chris Louras (right) watches a packed debate over refugee resettlement in Taylor's absorbing documentary. - © JENNIFER MAYTORENA TAYLOR
  • © Jennifer Maytorena Taylor
  • MAD IN MARBLE CITY Mayor Chris Louras (right) watches a packed debate over refugee resettlement in Taylor's absorbing documentary.

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor is a filmmaker and faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her family has roots in Los Angeles and Mexico, but when she was a child, her parents moved to the Rutland, Vt., area.

"It was a really big culture shock for all of us," Taylor said in a 2020 interview. Though her Rutland days are now far behind her, the experience left her "want[ing] to tell a story about small-town life from the perspective of someone who's felt pushed aside."

In 2016, Chris Louras, Rutland's then-mayor, announced that the city would welcome 100 refugees from war-torn Syria. Controversy erupted, and Taylor returned to document it. She shot For the Love of Rutland over three years; it premiered in 2020 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

After making the festival rounds — and winning White River Indie Films' inaugural Nora Jacobson Award last year — Taylor's bittersweet portrait of Rutland begins streaming on Thursday as part of the series "America ReFramed" (which copresents it with Vermont PBS). Find the documentary at worldchannel.org, WORLD Channel's YouTube channel, pbs.org and PBS Video.

The deal

For the Love of Rutland tells two parallel stories, one playing out in public and the other in private. The lively protagonist of the public story is Louras, a mayor who states baldly that people see his town as a "crap hole." With a declining population and rising opioid use, Rutland is in trouble, he tells Taylor's camera. An immigrant population could be exactly the infusion of energy it needs.

But some other Rutlanders saw danger in the potential newcomers. Racist and xenophobic rhetoric flew as the city debated the issue. Many decried Louras' lack of transparency about his plan — including David Allaire, who eventually unseated him as mayor. By then, Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban had thrown the whole resettlement effort into disarray.

That's the story Vermonters already know. But Taylor also tells a second, more intimate story. Rutlander Stacie Griffin speaks candidly about her struggles to pay monthly bills and feed her kids, about her history with opioids, and about her initial reluctance to welcome Syrians to her town. As the controversy evolves, so does Griffin, from suspicion to interest to acceptance.

Will you like it?

Rutland's refugee debate captured national media attention, seeming as it did to encapsulate the choices facing rural, blue-collar, majority-white America. As the city split into proponents and opponents of Louras' plan, the U.S. grew increasingly polarized, too.

In such an atmosphere, it's impossible not to take sides. Taylor's approach is not neutral, but it's also not preachy. This is a classic vérité documentary: Rather than bring on experts to explain what we're seeing, Taylor allows us to interpret it for ourselves. And there's plenty of rich material.

While Louras and Griffin serve as co-protagonists, the film paints vivid portraits of many other community figures. Lisa Ryan talks about growing up Black in Vermont; later in the film, we see her win her election for Rutland alderwoman. Local pastor Hannah Rogers, who started a ministry for the unhoused, relates her personal experience of homelessness.

Taylor also gives ample time to former state legislator and Rutland First organizer Don Chioffi. Proud of his own immigrant heritage, he nonetheless insists that America should be "for Americans."

Griffin is the film's most dynamic figure — down-to-earth, outspoken and amenable to change. Early on, we watch as her foster-mother tries to convince her that racism underlies the opposition to the refugees. Raised in poverty, Griffin angrily resists the notion of white privilege, seeing it as just another preconception that the world imposes on her. The problem, she insists, is not the refugees themselves but the fact that community members like her have no say in the process.

Many folks in the documentary make similar complaints, but Griffin does something about hers. She becomes civically engaged, helping organize community efforts to fight the opioid epidemic. That engagement gradually leads her to a place where the newcomers to Rutland no longer seem like impositions but like fellow humans who have been through hard times.

For the Love of Rutland is no love letter to the city. Taylor doesn't shy away from showing us dilapidated buildings or nasty graffiti. But the film is, in its muted way, a celebration of what can happen when citizens make a concerted effort to pull together and solve their problems with empathy instead of anger.

Despite Louras' efforts, only three Syrian families ended up in Rutland. But, with new waves of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine seeking shelter, Taylor's story feels as urgent and relevant now as it ever has.

If you like this, try...

Divided by Diversity (2016; YouTube): Local musician Duane Carleton's documentary chronicles the racism that five students from the Bronx faced when they came to Rutland's Mount St. Joseph Academy to play on its basketball team.

The Price of Safety (2021; more info at thepriceofsafetyfilm.com): A Vergennes couple made this documentary about the conflict that erupted in Vermont's smallest city over racially biased policing. Check the website for info on hosting a screening.

New Muslim Cool (2009; Tubi): Featured on PBS' "POV" series, this earlier doc from Taylor profiles a Puerto Rican American rapper and convert to Islam as he negotiates the post-9/11 culture wars.

The original print version of this article was headlined "For the Love of Rutland"