Nickel City Smiler (2010)

Scott Murchie and Brett Williams bring attention to the growing population of Burmese refugees who were forced out of their homeland and into jungle refugee camps on the border of Burma and Thailand by a brutal military dictatorship. The story is told by Smiler Greely, who spent 23 years at a camp before arriving on the west side of Buffalo, New York.

During the last ten years, the US has brought 600,000 refugees into the country through various resettlement programs. Most of the people who have relocated to Buffalo in the last few years are refugees.

Smiler is a thoughtful and well-spoken family man (with a great name). A former rebel fighter, he has learned the ropes a bit and shares what he knows by looking after the interests of his people who have little education and arrive with nothing, but hope. He asks "Why did they put us where they put us?" The west side is often threatening and unfriendly. He feels let down by the organizations who receive grants to help refugees get started in an apartment with minimal donated furnishings and not a lot else. Local organizations offer as much assistance as they can, but the process is slow.

Smiler offers encouragement to a woman who is emotionally broken since the death of her husband just a few months after her family arrived. She now has five children to care for and speaks little English. He assures her that he and his wife care about her. "Your children are my children," he tells her, but she comments that it was better in the jungle refugee camp back home. Here there are many more worries.

Donna Pepero is a local school teacher who offers Smiler endless support in his effort to build a strong community of his people. They struggle with the neighborhood gangs and are constantly targets of violence. "We must stick together like grains of rice," he tells the Karen people at a special church gathering.

Smiler explains that they all came here for the benefit of their children. His son, Moe Joe, is developing street smarts and learning from his father. He understands that his task in Buffalo is to get an education so that he can help the people back in Thailand. The kids run about the yard with little to play with. Smiler, Moe Joe, and a few others manage to have some fun singing and making music. They are shown practicing guitar and drums singing their pop rock song about their love for the Karen people.

I hope this film finds an audience beyond the screening at Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. It is especially enlightening for anyone not directly involved in the refugee activities on the west side. Heart-breaking, though...not a feel-good story about how well they are all doing. The film highlights their struggles and how far they have to go before more of the Burmese community are thriving. They are lucky to have someone like Smiler on their side.

More information is available at http://www.nickelcitysmiler.com


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

John Krasinski (The Office), directed and wrote this screenplay adaption of a David Foster Wallace story of the same name. A quote from Wallace sets the tone..."The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you. "

Set on a college campus, Sara (Julianne Nicholson) is a quiet young graduate student who is teaching and working on research about the effects of the feminist movement. The story is comprised of various interviews with men about their relationships with women as they open up to the tape recorder in surprising ways while she sits silently listening to their reflections.

Sara is personally invested in understanding why women find so much disappointment in relationships with men and a challenging central idea asks if painful experiences are the only path to true knowing? She carries an aura of sadness that is better understood as former boyfriend, Ryan (John Krasinski) reveals his story. As the subjects of her research reveal the depths of their desires and the dynamics of how they interact with women, Sara becomes more and more puzzled about the direction of study.

Professor Adams (Timothy Hutton) is her kindly teacher and guide who shares some of his own views about women. The cast are all familiar faces that are often difficult to place.This is a serious film, but enjoyable and thought-provoking with good acting--Julianne Nicholson is understated and appealing to watch.