- Poster art for Rutland
In September 2016, Viktor Witkowski began filming a documentary about then-mayor Chris Louras' plan to resettle 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Rutland. Witkowski's film, as he envisioned it, would have documented the refugees' acclimation to a new life far from their war-torn homelands.
Then, the unexpected happened. In November, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Two months later, he signed an executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries — including Syria and Iraq — from entering the U.S. Though a federal judge halted the initial travel ban, only 14 Syrians from three families were ultimately resettled in the Marble City.
Witkowski's recently completed film, simply titled Rutland, premieres on Saturday, February 23, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rutland. It focuses on the efforts of the grassroots group Rutland Welcomes to prepare for the influx of refugees — and their subsequent dismay when the plan fizzled.
"The film is about Rutland, and it is about the people in Rutland and those people in the community who wanted to help. But it's also bigger than just Rutland, and it's even bigger than just the States," Witkowski says. "It kind of shows you how the Syrian civil war ... had a real global impact and that countries across western and eastern Europe and the United States and Canada are all feeling it."
A current Norwich resident, Witkowski was himself a refugee as a child. In 1983, when he was 4, his family fled Poland following the lifting of martial law and settled in West Germany. His 2016 experimental short film "Refuge," about a group of Syrian refugees in modern-day Germany, was partially shot in his hometown of Espelkamp.
Witkowski, who teaches art at Dartmouth College, is a painter as well as a filmmaker. For him, the two practices are "in conversation with each other," and he notes that "the films draw from my paintings, and my paintings result from some of the footage I shoot."
While Rutland is less experimental than his previous films, it retains what Witkowski terms the "aesthetic sensibility of an art film." In one sequence, a montage of wintry Vermont landscapes is paired with French Moroccan singer Sarah Maison's "Western Arabisant," which melds Arabic music with the traditions of chanson française. The film then cuts to a group of Rutland Welcomes members using the reality TV show "Arab Idol" to learn basic Arabic phrases in preparation for the refugees' arrival.
Witkowski says he was impressed by the dedication of the Rutland Welcomes volunteers. He observes that he didn't see the same willingness among locals to learn about Syrian culture when he was filming "Refuge" in Germany.
"There were people [in Rutland] willing to help, and in the end they were prevented from helping," Witkowski says. "These are the real results of politics. These are the real results, on the ground, if you decide to enforce a travel ban."
Witkowski decided not to pursue interviews with the three Syrian families who resettled in Rutland, despite one family's high-profile appearance on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°" program. He says he didn't want them to feel obligated to speak on camera just because they were among the few Syrians to make it to Rutland.
"If you have [just] a few people, I think they're in a position where it's hard for them to say no, and that's why I didn't want to do it," Witkowski says. "I just decided that I would like to leave them in peace, so that they have the time and the space to start their lives in Rutland."
The film also contains no interviews with members of Rutland First, an informal group of Rutlanders who opposed the refugee resettlement plan and accused Louras of a lack of transparency in the process. Witkowski says he contacted Rutland First member Wendy Wilton, the former city treasurer who was appointed by the Trump administration as the Vermont state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. Wilton declined to participate in the film, according to Witkowski.
The film does contain several interviews with Louras, the five-term incumbent who was trounced in a March 2017 mayoral election widely seen as a referendum on the refugee controversy. In the final filmed interview, conducted in August 2018, Louras recalls that his family received death threats during his reelection bid. He says he still gets "the stink eye" when grocery shopping at the local Price Chopper.
"Rutland was a microcosm for the civil and less-than-civil debate that was taking place nationally during the presidential election," Louras says in the film, "and Donald J. [Trump] has done absolutely nothing but ramp up that rhetoric that led to the divisiveness within the country and within this community."