Photo of Crystal Dillman by Jacqueline Dormer, The Republican Herald.

In David Turnley’s “Shenandoah“, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania is forced to deal with the fallout of a murder committed by several of its HS football players.  In July 2008, Luis Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant from Iramurco, Mexico was chased, beaten, stomped and killed by a group of white teenage boys shouting racial slurs.  The local police in the tight-knit town covered up the crime, not even investigating it.

Turnley has a gift for getting people to open up and speak freely to him—a testament to his many years of experience as a photojournalist covering all sorts of conflicts around the world—and their words show us the racism and fear inherent in this dying, former coal town.

The glue that binds this town is its love of football, something many small American towns have in common.  That the best of their HS football players killed Luis Ramirez casts a pall over everyone’s lives.

The film introduces us to people all over Shenandoah: other football players, their parents, and townspeople.  Their insular community makes it impossible for them to face the truth of their own racism.  In fact one parent denies her son (Brian Scully, also involved in the killing who spoke on camera) is a racist, because he has a close “colored” friend.  Yikes!

I found it interesting that throughout the film the murder is referred to as “the incident.” Everyone denies being racist, yet rails against the Mexican immigrants coming to their town, working low wage farm and factory jobs.  And while the town was built historically by immigrants—German, Lithuanian, English, and Irish among others—that connection is lost on the current residents. With no economic prospects of their own, they lash out with the kind of anger exploited so well by many in our current political climate.

I didn’t even think of him as a person,” says Brian Scully. Growing up in an insular community, where everyone knows everyone, new people (especially of other races) are viewed as the “other.” There is only one person in town, a former police officer from Philly, Eileen Burke, who calls the death a murder.

After a town trial, the two teens indicted are set free, convicted of only “simple assault.”  It isn’t until the federal government steps in that justice is finally done.  Two of the killers are convicted and sent to prison, and three police oficers are also convicted of obstruction of justice and sent the prison for their roles in covering up the murder and lying to the FBI.

For Turnley, another photographer turned filmmaker, his reasons for making this documentary were simple: “I wanted to learn what happened, so that we could learn. (To) try to understand why good people can hate, and whether they have the potential to change.  I don’t judge a person by their one worst act.”

Shenandoah is a well-balanced, well paced film that relies on the town’s people to tell the story. Turnley doesn’t push you one way or the other, he allows you to understand the underlying distress of Shenandoah, without keeping too much of a distance.  You can’t help but feel the fear and hopelessness of a town that has no future, and has lost its past.  And while football acts as the tie that binds, it is clear people realize they have lost the world they grew up in.

Towards the end of the film we see students and townspeople take to the streets for a march against racism, and you feel as if, even with baby steps, that minds are perhaps changing.  The parents of Brian Scully actually acknowledge that if there were a way to make a better life for their family, they would take the chance to make it happen.  That is a monumental recognition for them of the exact reason why people leave Mexico for the U.S.

Other than the fact that I felt there was too maybe too much use of so many types of music in the film, I was riveted by the story, the people, and the film itself.  It’s not easy to make an engrossing documentary, and David Turnely has done that, building enough tension to make you want to know whether any justice was served. And especially after our divisive election, it is an important tale to tell: of racism, of desperation and of a little bit of redemption.

Photos by David. C. Turnley