BNFF11 REVIEW: Nickel City Smiler [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: 2011 (USA)
Studio: GoDigital Media Group
Director(s): Scott Murchie & Brett Williams

“I am not a Hollywood actor”

To a certain extent, I’ve always been of the mind that America needs to start worrying more about its own people before trying to save the world. Our God complex gets the better of us and we bring refugees over by offering empty promises of better lives and safety for their families while our own impoverished population doesn’t even have such security. However, I’m also very much for keeping our word and if we are going to go to a place like Burma to emancipate the Karen people, we better go all the way. Unfortunately, as Scott Murchie and Brett Williams’s film Nickel City Smiler shows, our government and the agencies attempting to do the right thing are far from perfect, feeling as though once the refugees have set foot on American soil, their lives will turn to gold without any more help. These people go back to their suburban homes and fall asleep with a smile on their faces, anointing themselves saints for good deeds done while the refugees are left crammed in dilapidated houses, alone and hoping to survive a new form of genocide.

Screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, the film received the largest crowd of any other I’ve attended this year, mostly I think due to its setting in the West Side of our Queen City. There were a couple walk-outs, and while they could have simply been people who had somewhere to be, I can’t help wondering if it was also because Buffalo is shown in such a bad light. What people may not realize, though, is that it isn’t necessarily the city we need to blame, it is the cavalier attitude of the organizations deluded enough to think they have helped these refugees. They move people from one warzone into another without educating them, let alone the citizens of their new homes. Ignorance is bliss and agencies like Catholic Charities—talk about being shown in a horrible light—move on too quickly, promising to be there to help yet walking away after the government mandated $425 is given and a slum is found. Sometimes they can’t even get that right and end up sticking two families of eight in the same home, two families who don’t even speak the same language let alone ours.

The system is broken; there is no doubt. Even though I may not agree with taking on this responsibility, we are and therefore we better clean up our act and do it correctly. Families like Smiler Greely’s—the subject of this documentary—are trying. They are attempting to assimilate by learning the language, finding gainful employ, and participating in the community. Some take on too much, risking their own freedom for that of their people by standing up against injustice and looking ungrateful in the process. Smiler is the first to say that America is his home, but he also admits he is nothing in the context of this nation. He didn’t leave Burma to cheat the system and get free money; he came for his family, to give them the opportunity to for education—most refugees don’t even know Welfare exists. While admitting he may never be happy or find success, he knows his children will. They will become doctors, lawyers, teachers; they are the future. He’s been in war and he’s killed, but when you see the atrocities he has back home, what choice do you have but to join the revolution? These kids have a choice.

Finding a place working for the Refugee School Impact Program, helping assimilate refugee children—the statistic is given that 98% of new settlers in the Buffalo area the past two years have been refugees—Smiler has also taken it upon himself to be a leader willing to translate, assist, and really be the only person his Karen people can count on. Co-worker and friend Donna Pepero sees his love and compassion firsthand and wants him to keep giving, but also to save himself. Residing in Orchard Park, she attempts to get him to move to the Southtowns, to worry about his children. She wants him to stop risking his own life with gang violence, leaving his family without a father only because he wants to be close to the community so he can help when they knock on his door at all hours of the night. They have no one else, though, and he can’t bring himself to abandon them. The Karen are his family, the children of his friends are his children, and he refuses to let them suffer without doing all he can to help.

Nickel City Smiler is about educating the American population to this issue and showing these refugees have been brought here and placed without a choice. They come to survive, willing to do their part, but the system lets them down, making them into leeches in our eyes, taking food and money out of our mouths. It’s hard to believe we can’t give a little more assistance, a little more compassion and understanding to make the situation work. We can try to teach them English, try to make them feel safe so their kids can play in the front yard without risk of drugs or cars jumping the curb fifty feet and plowing into the porch. Listening to Smiler’s son Moe Joe shows this potential. A highly intelligent, affable, and cute young boy, he isn’t blind to what’s going on. He wants to be here, he wants to learn and make something of himself, but all he sees are ‘street animals’ itching for a fight. What has he done to them? Why do they look at him and feel the need for anger? It’s a sad state when you begin to wish Americans were more like the refugees. We should want them to aspire to be more like us, but we’re failing miserably.

courtesy of Nickel City Smiler official site

7 Thoughts to “BNFF11 REVIEW: Nickel City Smiler [2011]”

  1. I just watched this last night and completely agree with your review, especially the last line. They’re such good human beings, and most American’s are such selfish, unstable, shit bags. Wonderful film, I can’t wait to do what little I can to help the Karen people of Buffalo.

  2. Jaynee

    I have yet to watch this documentary, but I live on the west side and have worked with refugees in various ways over the last three years. I find the comments about refugee resettlement organizations to be wholly unfair. These organizations are full of caring people who are doing their best with very limited resources to assist refugees coming to Buffalo. Maybe the film showed some of the breakdowns in the system, and there certainly are problems, but I don’t think these examples can be used to condemn all refugee aid organizations or staff members as self-righteous failures. Like all non-profit and human service agencies, these organizations are fighting against entire systems and a severe lack of resources. Sure, they would love to outfit each arriving refugee with a comfy suburban home with a white picket fence, but how can they be expected to turn the small money allotment they receive into a vision of the “American Dream”? Like all other agencies trying to help the homeless, the poor, the abused, etc., refugee organizations are working everyday to help refugees navigate and feel comfortable in Buffalo. However, we can’t blame them for the root government and structural issues. We don’t blame organizations dealing with poverty when there are still poor or homeless in the city.
    Lastly, I find it a huge generalization to say that refugee aid staff go back to their suburban homes, patting themselves on the back for doing good for refugees. Many refugee resettlement staff members live right here on the west side, attend refugee-organized cultural events, and respond to out-of-work-time requests for help from clients. Many are passionate about helping refugees and are doing their best to help with what they are given. While there’s always room for improvement, I don’t think we should be attacking the very people who are doing something about the problems.

    1. i appreciate you taking the time to read my review, but you should probably keep in mind that it is a MOVIE REVIEW. i’m not commenting on the system as it is or isn’t in real life, i’m commenting on the system as it is shown in the FILM. i understand your feelings and i’m sure there are plenty of people trying and succeeding to do good. on the other side of the coin, there is probably just as many people failing. i don’t know, i’m not privy to the ins and outs of the process except as is portrayed in the film.

      and of course it’s a generalization, we speak and think in generalizations. i’m not here to do a ten year project interviewing and writing a detailed report on every single person on the west side helping relocate refugees, that’s not what i’m after. i’m here to tell people about a movie that i feel was successful in portraying a problem. yes, they portray the problems because they want to instill change. it wouldn’t be a very good activist film if it only showed how the system worked. if anything, i guess my review was successful in showing that you probably shouldn’t bother watching the film. it will most likely just anger you more.

      i feel for the caring people doing what they can, i feel for the employees working in a failed system they can’t help due to poor government funding. but as i started the review, i personally don’t think we should be wasting any money on bringing foreigners here. yes, they have it much much worse than we do. but maybe we should worry about our own ‘poor and homeless’ in the city as you said. maybe we should clean up our house, use the money we have to help our citizens first before we stretch it thinner.

      we in America feel if we try a little bit it is enough rather than fulfilling promises. we put our hands in way too much and make every endeavor that much harder and impossible to succeed. and yes, that too was a purposely made generalization.

  3. Jaynee

    Jared–Thanks for your response. I didn’t intend to come off as angry or as if I am attacking you. I realize this is a movie review. The language of the review is quite provocative,however, and written as if the points put out in the movie are the whole truth about refugee resettlement. I felt the need to respond in some way and maybe start a healthy discussion about the issues. This may not be the right place to do that.

    1. Jaynee – no worries, i thank you for being interested enough to write. hopefully someone else in the know will also respond and partake in healthy discussion on topic, i’d love to be privy to that. unfortunately, though, i am not educated in the subject enough to speak on either side. if the film can generate debate and steps towards improving the system, it would be great.

  4. delila

    Your comment of not being educated enough to speak on either side struck me. You review was somewhat biased, as is this movie, which only shows ONE side of resettlement, form a point of view of individuals who have a personal agenda. Many of the facts presented need checking, as they are inaccurate and one-sided. I am glad people walked out. And perhaps the most ironic part: that these individuals work for an agency and have the audacity to portray their coworkers and associates as uncaring. Resettlement is hard work, and it isn’t always rosy, that is true ..agencies do need help, not bashing ..and disclosure: I do not work for catholic charities but i know many people who work in resettlement and people who have been helped. it isn’t all bad. There are 3 sides to every story..this movie only shows one and it is inaccurate.

    1. of course it’s a personal agenda. if someone made a film about the other side of the coin and did it as provocatively and intriguingly as this, with a real human aspect, i’d be just as biased the other way in my review. i’m sure fact checking is needed and i do believe if someone watches this film and is affected by it, they’d feel the need to check those facts. i’m not one of them, i’ll admit that. i watch movies, i like to be entertained. suggest to me a film that shows the opposite side of the equation and if it is as well done as this one is, i’m sure i’d love it as well. but i’d still not get all the facts. it’s not the point, these films push an agenda and being someone without an opinion, the fact it caused me to be so passionate in my writing proves it succeeded, whether it’s right or wrong. it does what the filmmakers set out to do.

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