Judge Adam Arseneau would consider settling down in Farmingville, Long Island, if they figured out a way to deal with the pesky race riots.
Welcome to the new suburbs, home of the new border wars.
Farmingville is that rare kind of documentary that manages to be shocking and sad, moving and provocative, completely irrational and totally believable, all at the same time—balancing its neutrality with deftness and even-handed observation. It simply points the camera, asks no questions, and watches. If Michael Moore winning the Best Documentary Oscar got under your skin…the only prescription…is more cowbell.
Or, watching Farmingville might help. Maybe. Couldn't hurt. Why are you asking me? What do I look like, a doctor?
Facts of the Case
In the late 1990s, influxes of Mexican immigrants flood across the borders seeking work. Unlike previous migrations, these newcomers decide to travel north, avoiding the traditional border states completely. Farmingville, a small town (population 15,000) on New York's Long Island, sees a thousand or so illegal Mexican immigrants joining the ranks of the working, drawn by the constant need for manual labor in the town's greenhouse, masonry, and landscaping industries.
This small town, completely unprepared for the tsunami of illegal aliens, recoils like a man being mugged in broad daylight by an old lady. What starts off as a few small public meetings at City Hall—in which locals complain about the town's degrading conditions, hundreds of migrant workers standing on street corners looking for work, thirty to forty people crammed into two-bedroom houses, noise violations, and other annoyances—soon blossoms into full-blown protest by the townsfolk, who began opposing the presence of the illegal workers with growing hatred.
Farmingville is the story of small-town America suddenly dropped head-first into a class and race war, absolutely confused as to how it got there in the first place, struggling to restore a sense of normalcy to its streets. The town finds itself polarized over the immigration issue, with groups of citizens banding together to protect the workers, with the others starting "quality of life" organizations designed to run the illegal aliens out of town.
When the town reaches the tipping point, violence erupts…
Farmingville is as old-fashioned as you can get in terms of documentary filmmaking, like a prehistoric dinosaur of even-handedness and equal opportunity lost in a land of Bowling For Columbine-style exploitive and manipulative documentary filmmaking. It reminds us how documentaries used to be as staunch in their neutrality as humanly possible—braving complete anonymity by the moviegoing public with their inherent blandness and dullness, but proud nevertheless for simply presenting the facts in a straightforward and concise fashion, simply letting the audience decide how to deal with the truth. This style of documentary making has fallen out of fashion these days in favor of highly subjective, fantastically editorialized productions, and it is refreshing to see this objective and balanced style returning, at least in part, in films like Farmingville.
Now, for the record, one cannot claim that Farmingville is completely free of bias—after all, the fact that a film like this was made at all implies a slight but noticeable sympathy towards the immigrant population of Farmingville. Think about it: a film made purposefully to deride Mexican immigrants? It would be awfully difficult to market, and even more difficult for the filmmakers to stay out of jail and avoid arrest for pandering hate crime material. No fun at all. Nevertheless, the film goes tremendously out of its way to present the issue at hand as evenly, as succinctly, and as neutrally as possible, offering equal screen time to pundits from both sides of the issue, giving balanced accounts from left and right angles alternatively. Not only does Farmingville recognize the position of those in the town taking a decisively anti-immigration stance, it treats their opinions and beliefs with the same respect (and more importantly, screen time) as those of the pro-immigration people. Farmingville is not always an easy film to watch, as the subject matter is awfully distressing, but it is a downright honest and fair film—at least, as honest as a film about class struggle and racial tension can be.
Farmingville is an eye-opener in the same way being smashed in the knees with a crowbar opens your eyes. Though the story only concerns a mere 15,000 people on Long Island, the implications for the whole of North America come crashing down on you like an elephant falling from a small office building. It makes an impression—a big one. The underlying discontents in this film are so devastatingly unbelievable that they defy all logical thought and reason, and yet inescapably, we realize them to be absolutely true. The reminder that class and racial tensions in North America still flow strongly enough inspire violence feels so antiquated as to be almost quaint, and yet, how can one deny it? These factors permeate every aspect of our culture, our politics, our global relations, and our lives. Class and race are big, big problems in North America, and the very fact that a film like Farmingville exists simply proves this fact to be inarguably true. Despite only focusing on a small Long Island town as a metaphor for America as a whole, Farmingville speaks volumes as to how polarized and divided as a culture we have become over even the simplest of issues. What this means for us, individually, isn't always easy to hear.
But that is only half the story. The anti-immigration side argues that race has absolutely nothing to do with the tensions in Farmingville; rather, it is simply a quality-of-life issue, which stems into deeper class issues throughout America. After all, the labors that the white majority chooses not to do—cleaning garbage, landscaping, house painting, manual labor, and so forth—are the jobs that the influx of immigrants looking for work in America will do, and will do quite willingly. America, after all, was founded upon the backs of the immigrant populace coming to America, working the crappy jobs nobody wanted, and slowly building their fortunes—only to become prosperous, turn around, and sneer at the next generation of immigrants coming in looking for their fortunes. This cycle has been repeating for hundreds of years now.
This Catch-22 of class and labor relations is a particularly sticky issue, since it remains almost entirely irresolvable. If the upper classes do the manual labor, then they cease to have the type of lifestyle that defines them as upper class; therefore, there is always a constant need for lower-class workers. But if the lower-class move into your posh neighborhood to do the work you refuse to do, it threatens your upper-class lifestyle, does it not?
As much as race fuels the fire in Farmingville, so does the convoluted issue of class warfare. One side represents the hard-working immigrants, looking for the American dream; the other represents the more privileged, who come to the quiet suburbs to enjoy the dream they have. Each dream seems to be directly at odds with the other: The immigrants want what the majority have, and the majority cannot enjoy their dream with degenerates in town hanging out at street corners, leering at their daughters, and lowering the standard of living in their communities. At least, so they believe.
What makes Farmingville such a great film is how unobtrusively it presents itself. The narrators are nowhere to be found in this film, nor are the filmmakers. They leave no presence on the film, and simply stick to the material at hand. So the fact that Farmingville is such an emotional powerhouse, so provocative and stunning, is based solely on the material itself, and has nothing to do with the filmmakers' efforts to manipulate, eschew, or otherwise enhance the subject for dramatic effect. No creative licenses are taken, because the material does not require any.
Farmingville is low-budgeted, probably edited on a home computer, broadcast on PBS with a minimum of fuss or advertising, and the fruits of its low-budget efforts reveal one of the best documentaries I have ever had the pleasure of watching. In terms of storytelling, it conveys the personal stories, the frustration, the confusion, and the outrage of the citizens of Farmingville with passion and grace, as well as placing the larger issues squarely in the national context of race, racism, and immigration. When Farmingville began attracting national headlines, it drew in people from both sides of the issue: anti-racism activists, Nazis, militants from all points on the spectrum. Soon, these people flocked to the small Long Island town as the newest battleground of the frontier of race relations in America, ready to do battle and further their cause—and all the while, the townspeople simply watched in confusion and horror as violence erupts in the streets. What starts off simply as a group of citizens concerned about the living conditions in their town soon turns tragic, into a spiral of violence, hatred, racism, and segregation. The punchline, of course, and perhaps the most heartbreaking element of Farmingville, is that both sides of the issue are clearly at a loss as to how things turned so bad so quickly…or how to resolve any of it.
As great as Farmingville is on the technical side of things, this dvd presentation steals a little bit of its shine away. sadly, the transfer is almost an ugly one, with some nasty edge enhancement and jaggedness throughout. of course, this is a pbs film, probably taken straight from television, but compared to most television transfers on dvd, Farmingville looks pretty sketchy. Black levels are average, and detail is reasonable, but perched precariously on the border of being blocky and jagged. It does the job well enough for casual viewing, and certainly looks better than a television broadcast, but on a nice television, this DVD would look pretty bad. The audio, a simple Dolby stereo track, does the job; the documentary contains little in the way of bass-thumping excitement, and so the track executes its functionality well enough.
We don't get much in the way of extras, sadly, The film is followed by a short (and I mean short) interview with the directors, giving their two cents as to why they moved to Farmingville and shot this documentary. We also get about 20 minutes of unused footage and interviews with the local townsfolk of Farmingville, which expands further upon the divided attitudes between its citizens, since every person seems to take a different stance. This extra footage is nice, but not very sufficient for rounding out the extra material department. Outside of a few links to online resources and some trailers, that is all we get.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the problems with this DVD are of a technical nature. The sound is functional, but underwhelming; the transfer is almost nasty; the subject matter is so engrossing and fascinating that the film begs supplementary material, and irritatingly, we get practically none. Even worse, the documentary preserves its television broadcast format all the way down to the PBS commercials laced before and after the feature.
What's up with that? Like when I buy a DVD, I need to hear that this program was paid for in part by donations from viewers like me. Most DVD sets have the common courtesy to cut commercial advertising from their DVD releases, since we have already purchased the damn product—no need to harp on us anymore.
I guess PBS is simply too used to harping. Maybe they just don't know how to stop.
Gripping, compelling, fascinating, sad and disturbing, Farmingville simply is a fantastic documentary, and there is no better way to phrase it. It does an astounding job at presenting both sides of the issue with equal weight, importance and screen time—that in of itself deserves accolade and praise. On the subject of racial and class relations in America in the 21st century, Farmingville is a serious eye-opener, and you will be hard pressed to find a finer documentary on DVD this year.
Rent it, buy it, whatever…just make it a point to see it.
For the film itself, a hundred times not guilty (though the DVD could have used some technical beefing up). As for the citizens of Farmingville, New York…the Court orders that half the townsfolk are to be rounded up, tied down and horsewhipped for being idiots.
You can decide which half after watching the film.
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