How a plan to welcome 100 Syrian refugees divided a town and changed one woman's life
For The Love of Rutland premieres at the Hot Docs virtual film festival in Toronto
Stacie Griffin never gave much thought to the world outside of her small Vermont hometown until April 2016, when the mayor announced a plan to settle 100 Syrian refugees there.
The idea was to revitalize Rutland's withering economy and put it on the map for something other than its high rate of opioid addiction.
But instead, the plan divided the community, pitting residents against each other in two camps — those who believed the newcomers would save the town, and those who believed they would destroy it.
The documentary For The Love of Rutland follows that controversy through the lens of Stacie Griffin, a born-and-bred Rutland resident with a history of opioid addiction, as she grapples with the issue that's tearing her town apart.
"I decided to really look for somebody who wasn't already in one camp or another, who might have questions, who might be open to discussion or thought about what was happening and how the Syrian refugee issue was sort of touching on all these other tensions in the town," filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, who moved to Rutland as a child, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"That's when I happened to come across Stacie, who just amazed me immediately with her energy and her incredibly ferocious intellect and curiosity about the world."
For The Love of Rutland premieres Thursday at the Toronto Hot Docs virtual film festival.
Griffin is a mother of two, a self-described "fourth-generation welfare recipient," and a recovering opioid addict who's been drug free for almost 15 years.
She now works as a convenience store cashier, but during the filming of the documentary, she struggled to find work and make ends meet.
Her story is a familiar one in Rutland, a town of about 16,000 people that's been hard hit by the opioid crisis and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
In one scene, Griffin opens the local newspaper to read about a massive drug bust, and recognizes the names of those who were arrested.
"I absolutely could have been one of those people," she said in an interview with Off. "I am so grateful every day that I wake up and every night that I go to bed that I am where I am today."
Griffin was never a member of the "Rutland first" movement that virulently opposed the refugee resettlement plan and spread anti-refugee sentiment throughout the town.
But she was wary at first of bringing in families from a war-torn country who, like her, would depend on the community's already stretched social services. She wondered how Rutland could possibly accommodate newcomers when it couldn't even take care of its own.
It's a sentiment she now regrets.
"I was clueless. I had no clue what was going on around me in my own state, let alone my own country, let alone another country," she said.
"I strongly need to apologize for my close-mindedness and ... I do have to tell you, I have never, ever closed my thoughts since that day when I realized, listen, this is bigger than all of us."
The film is set in 2016 — the same year Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination and rose to the country's highest office on an "America-first" agenda that mirrored the rhetoric taking ahold of Rutland.
"I didn't anticipate it becoming quite so parallel to what was happening nationally and perhaps even internationally with the rise of populism and the way that xenophobia is being voiced in all these different ways," Taylor said.
"I also felt so strongly that this was a chance to also punch through some of the ways that polarization is just assumed to be normal."
Over the course of the film, Taylor follows Griffin on a journey of discovery — about herself, her town, the plight of the Syrians, and the role of racism in America.
One scene shows Griffin's foster mother introducing her to the idea of "white syndrome," which she describes as: "I'm white. You're not. So you don't belong here."
"And it's not just the refugees who suffer from this white syndrome," she explains to a then-indignant Griffin. "Your gays, your blacks, anybody that just wants to live their life and be left the hell alone suffers when the white syndrome steps in."
It's a lesson that eventually sinks in as Griffin comes to realize there's room in her town to help struggling residents and welcome others at the same time. After all, both groups are just regular people who were dealt an unfair hand in life.
"I think some people have an issue with multitasking. And I think that's the nicest, simplest, way I can put it," Griffin said.
"The commonalities between any refugee and the citizens in Rutland are mind-blowingly huge and common and more than anyone could imagine."
Despite all the heightened tensions, the resettlement plan eventually fizzles.
Chris Louras, the five-term mayor who championed the idea, lost his next election, and a newly-elected President Trump instituted a travel ban against Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.
"People who wanted the refugee resettlement to go forward were devastated. And the people who didn't want it to go forward were, you know, elated," Taylor said.
Just three of the proposed 25 families arrived in Rutland.
"And none of the really exaggerated visions of either a sort of hellscape or a utopia came true," Taylor said. "You know, it's just these folks just have settled into the community and daily life has continued."
The families did not want to be interviewed for the documentary, but one of them agreed to welcome Griffin into their home.
"The minute we walked through the door of that family's home, the comfort that I felt was amazing. I felt like I was right where I belonged. I didn't feel judged and it was the most beautiful connection that I made in my life," she said.
"And it also saddens me because I wish that the other families that were supposed to come to Rutland were able to have that same feeling that I had and that the family that I met had."
For The Love of Rutland streams at Hot Docs from May 28 to June 24.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interviews with Jennifer Maytorena Taylor and Stacie Griffin produced by Kate Swoger.