Nickel City Smiler
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(Jan 18, 2011)
Nickel City Smiler chronicles a refugee's fight for survival and hope in the American rustbelt.
For his entire life Smiler Greely has lived in conditions only few could imagine. Growing up in Burma, at age 10, Smiler and his family were forced to flee their small village after the Burmese military attacked, tortured, raped and murdered thousands of the countries ethnic minorities. As a teenager, Smiler was compelled to join the resistance army in an attempt to prevent the slaughter of innocent people at the hands of the Burmese Junta. Eventually, Smiler and his family escaped into Thailand where over the next 20 years they lived in various refugee camps enduring confinement and poverty. It was in Beh Klaw refugee camp, where Smiler met and married his wife Ma Dee and became a father. In 2007, an optimistic Smiler and his family were selected for resettlement by the United States and assigned to live in Buffalo, New York.
Nickel City Smiler documents the ways in which Smiler's resettlement in Buffalo is as challenging as the life he left behind. Refugees continue to battle hardship, violence and bureaucracy in one of America's poorest cities. Smiler's determination, optimism, and desire to support his community are manifested in his son Moe Joe's moral idealism and sense of social justice. The strength present in Smiler's family represents the very essence of the refugee community.
Visit the movie website at www.nickelcitysmiler.com.
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This particular documentary already has some reviews on Amazon, but in reading them, we feel some things in those reviews ought to be addressed.
Regarding the misrepresentation of Buffalo, New York: All documentaries that we've seen of refugee life here in the United States feature neighborhoods like this one. Of course Buffalo, New York is not completely this way. Of course there are beautiful areas in Buffalo... but the neighborhood we see portrayed in this film transcends Buffalo. If you go to any major city that has a large refugee community, with few exceptions, they're going to be in neighborhoods that look like the ones in this film.
Regarding the coaching of the folks on film: When you speak with people for whom English is not their primary language, their ideas and speech can jump around and be difficult to follow. Had the film maker not kept them on subject, i'm sure this documentary would be extremely hard to follow.
Regarding Smiler Greely coaxing people saying "come on, you can tell me.": For us to explain the Karen people would take thousands of pages here, so here's the quick version: The Karen people have been persecuted for approximately 64 years by the Burmese government. After 64 years of absolutely injustice, they have developed a new attitude towards life. "if something good happens, wonderful. if something bad happens, keep your mouth shut and try to survive it." In this documentary, when Smiler is talking with newly arrived refugees, he's telling them "come on, you can tell me" because they don't know that in America, they can complain about leaky ceilings, no electricity, unfair landlords, etc...
Regarding the coincidental placement of a knife: We as Americans view the presence of a knife as a violent thing, and too often, that's true. If you look at this from the refugee's eyes though, it's much less of a big deal. Nearly every time we go to a refugee's home, they're cooking something. Try to get out of a refugee's home without being fed... we dare you! Sometimes they cook on their oven, and sometimes they cook behind or on the side of their apartment/house. If you go to a refugee neighborhood during the summer, you're going to see groups of refugees, sitting around small Coleman grills, cooking ribs, chicken, etc... Refugees are given what they're given when they arrive. They don't have 12 matching place sets and all of the standard utensils of the kitchen. If we had to guess why that knife was there in the alley, it's that someone cooked there recently, and instead of tongs, they used a knife to stab and flip the cooking food. When they went in that night with their plates of food, the grill, their chairs, etc... the knife was left.
In summation: We found this film to be wonderful, touching and informative. We'd love to say that the things in this film are not real, that life isn't that difficult for refugees, but unfortunately it's 100% accurate. The one fault we found with the film was that it didn't really give a "where do we go from here" summation, however if you go to the film's website, you can find that there (which in a way is pretty smart because "where we go from here" today may be completely different than "where we go from here" in 10 years.)
Nickel City Smiler is definitely worth your time, especially if you want to focus on Karen refugees.
As for the refugee story, I found the main characters dedication to helping his people charming. I think the message of carrying on to make it better for the next generation is the message of all immigrants that have come to this country.
Overall, I probably would not have bought the film had I seen it first.