SxSW 2020 Interview – HAMTRAMCK directors Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman

Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies

“HAMTRAMCK, USA examines the benefits and tensions of multiculturalism through the exploration of daily life and democracy in America’s first Muslim-majority city.” Director Razi Jafri and Justin Feltman on HAMTRAMCK, USA which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW! 

Welcome to SxSW! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes. We are very excited to have our first feature documentary premiere at SXSW. We think this is the perfect venue for this film. We will be at each screening and cannot wait to discuss the film with festival goers.

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?

Razi was an engineer for ten years and left in pursuit of more impactful work. He wanted to get into the visual arts and storytelling so he began working as a documentary photographer throughout the Detroit area and for Michigan Radio. 

I went to film school for a couple years, worked on a few films and shorts, but settled down working in non-profit communications, while working on a few film projects on the side. 

Eventually, I wanted to focus more on filmmaking so I came to Detroit in 2016 to cover the election and underrepresented voices in democracy, where I met Razi. He had just completed a documentary photography fellowship with Documenting Detroit. He was looking for his next projects and wanted to get into filmmaking. We really enjoyed each other’s work and decided we’d make a great team. 

How did this documentary come together?

The idea for this project was formed in the days following Trump’s election in November of 2016.We looked at Hamtramck and knew that this community was special and at the heart of so many of these issues. 

We saw that the mayoral election was in 2017 and knew that’d be a story worth following. Justin left all his equipment with me and we got to work right away. He moved to Hamtramck for 6 months as the political campaigns heated up and we filmed until January 2018, when the newly elected officials were sworn in. 

We started raising funds, on the crowdfunding platform LaunchGood, through grants from CAAM and The Islamic Scholarship Fund, and several other private donations. In mid-2018, we brought in our editor, Luther Clement. We hosted a series of rough cut screening in 2019, hosted by Kartemquin Films through their KTQ Labs program in Chicago, the University of Michigan-Dearborn in June, and POV/AmDocs at their office in Brooklyn, in July.  

In late fall 2019, we brought in our colorist and sound mixer and are finalizing that now. We also worked to finalize the score and recorded a Bangladeshi cover of a Polish American song about the city to use for the final credits. 

What kept you going while making the movie? What drove you?

We love this city. From the beginning of the shoot, we just loved every chance we got to film in Hamtramck. It’s a small town, only 2 square miles but it’s always alive. There’s cultural events, festivities, sports and political events constantly going on. You see something new every day we’d shoot, even if you’re just walking through a neighborhood. 

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

Financial issues are always a challenge. We had to self fund it through most of the production and find volunteers to help us cover the many events that’d go on at once. We truly couldn’t have made this film without them.

The most rewarding was just seeing this idea that we wanted from the beginning really come to life and come together as a real film. It also feels great to make something that really honors the city and the community members that shape this city. 

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed. 

We worked with a variety of shooters to capture the film. We mostly filmed with the C100 MKII and a few 5D’s. We always knew this would be a different kind of election doc.  The city’s politics are very grassroots and personal. When approaching every shoot, we wanted to capture the intimacy of not only the politics but the daily life and celebrations that really showcase the beauty of this city. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

Telling people the story of Hamtramck. I think Austin and Hamtramck are kindred spirits in many ways. We just look forward to hearing people’s reactions and thoughts.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

More festivals. We are waiting to hear back from a few but were certainly content to travel with this one for awhile. With our CAAM grant, that funding comes through the CPB so we are looking to hopefully broadcast the film soon enough.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Detroit’s Fox Theatre would be incredible. The Freep Film Festival is in late April that’s going to be an amazing experience. We cannot wait to show our film to those who call Hamtramck home. 

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking, texting, leaving halfway, etc, through a movie?

I mean… I hate it but I’m a pushover so…sadly, I’d do nothing but complain about it after to whoever I went with to the movie!

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

I mean just start shooting with whatever you got. Just shoot and write whatever you can. Never know where it might end up and where it might get you. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

A couple years ago we both got to see MINDING THE GAP. We had just started editing the film and it was really inspiring. It was the perfect film to see at that moment.

This is one of the many films playing at SxSW 2020! For more information on this film, screening times and info on the entire SxSW experience, point your browser to!

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