In 2008, an undocumented immigrant named Luis Ramirez was beaten to death by four white, star football players in Shenandoah, Penn. — a tragedy now immortalized by the upcoming documentary that shares its name with the town.
Scheduled to show at the Michigan Theater on March 27, “Shenandoah” is as much a documentary about the victim as it is about the coal-mining town itself. And for five years, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and filmmaker David Turnley, and RC and Art & Design professor, labored to capture this painful moment, this volatile re-imagining of Americanism — what the film’s tagline calls “The American Dream on Trial.”
Turnley was sure to tread his words carefully. Several times, he started, stopped, double-backed and skipped forward just to recount this American story with the same precision and respect displayed in the craftsmanship of the film itself.
“The challenges of working-class communities and where we stand as a nation today in real terms with regard to our values as an immigrant nation,” Turnley said, “are all seriously important questions and realities to where we are as a country.”
Both Turnley and his twin brother Peter grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. — a very segregated city at the time — with an idealistic spirit instilled into them by historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.
After sustaining a football injury, Peter went into the inner city of Fort Wayne to photograph the lives of people there.
“When I started looking at these photographs, it was then I realized what is equal, what is human dignity,” Turnley said. “And when I discovered photography, it gave me an opportunity to use the camera to do those things, to actively seek to engage with the world we live in and all kinds of different people.”
“I picked up a camera and sort of never looked back.”
Turnley went on to work at the Detroit Free Press for 18 years, where he covered Apartheid South Africa for three years. He worked in Europe and all over the world until finally coming back to the United States from 1996 to 1997 to study filmmaking at Harvard.
“I wanted to live in a world that wasn’t divided, in a world that was … ” Turnley trailed off, thought to himself a moment and continued, “I thought life sort of meant the world we live (in) is meant to be celebrated and explored. And I wanted to be part of that big world.”
In 2008, then-Illinois Senator Sen. Barack Obama campaigned for the American presidency under the slogan, “Yes, we can!,” which originated from Latino American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Inspired by what he viewed as the inclusive vision long aspired toward by the leaders he grew up with, Turnley worked with the presidential hopeful as the campaign photographer for several days.
“And then at some point in the spring of 2008, President-elect Obama, at a fundraiser, made a statement that in times of crisis, the working class across the Rust Belt clings to their guns and religion,” Turley said. “And it made me think, once again, here we go: His vision is an inclusive America, but in fact, there appear to be many Americas.”
At this, Turnley, who was briefly a walk-on for the University Football team, was compelled to make a film about the working class in a place of people about whom his father and grandfather spoke, where they play tough football.
“It was always fascinating me when I grew up hearing about the tough football in these industrial steel-mill/coal-mining towns,” Turnley said.
As fate would have it, a friend contacted him and told him about a place called Shenandoah: a town where the population of Hispanic people is significantly lower than the Caucasian population, and the average income somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000.
The town itself rests in the folds of coal-mining country. Houses and low buildings are wedged in tight next to each other, and among the clutter, there are tall church steeples rising over them, all wrapped up by gentle, green mountains. There is a town where you might never have noticed one.
“I felt like I just arrived in ‘The Deer Hunter’; it was this incredibly immigrant town, ironically, that exists because of immigrants who came to mine coal,” Turnley said. “And ironically, in the heart of an immigrant town, four of the star sons, football players, were charged with beating to death an undocumented Mexican immigrant.”
Ramirez left behind a wife, a son and daughter, and friends.
“They knew nothing about him,” Turnley stated. “Other than that he wasn’t from there. They knew he spoke Spanish and he had brown skin. That’s it.”
But in an attempt to understand this man’s life and what it means on a broader scale, Turnley faced an equally important challenge: to humanize the attackers themselves and the town — both all too easily condemnable by outside prying eyes.
“I never really wanted or believed in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ world, but it seems that it very often plays out as an ‘us’ and ‘them’ world,” Turnley said. “I determinedly did not want to make an ‘us’ and ‘them’ film. And that means I didn’t want equally to be an outsider looking at them.”
While the media firestorm understandably flooded the town for the story and then left, Turnley was going to tell a different story. He was in for the long haul. For the first year, he drove the three-hour ride from his home in New York City to Shenandoah each weekend, attending every football game, every parade and every holiday celebration.
“It wasn’t hard for me to enjoy being there.”
“As you actually dig into a town like Shenandoah, Pennsylvannia and you talk to people and you go back into their family’s histories, you learn very quickly that the proverbial melting pot was always boiling,” Turnley said. “That every wave of immigration faced challenges from the previous waves of immigration.”
Shenandoah was once a great and rising city. In the 1920s to the 1930s, 40,000 people lived there. The coal-mine industry showed no signs of faltering. People said it was like walking down the streets of New York City.
“It was where there’s probably the most important reserve of what they call ‘hard coal,’ in the world,” Turnley said.
That all changed in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of oil. For when coal was replaced, Shenandoah was replaced.
“In an interesting way,” Turnley said, “the film reveals a certain clairvoyance on the part of Obama when he talked about how it seems that when people feel their backs against the wall, when times are tough, that there seems to be a propensity to find a scapegoat. People lose sight of their better angels.”
The tragedy of Ramirez has forced the people of Shenandoah to confront the present challenges of the working class to a profound level. Watching the documentary, it becomes immediately apparent the town is in a state of bewilderment and grief, that it’s not a white monolith, but much divided on the issue of immigration — a critical aspect of American identity.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Shenandoah, that (it) will never be what it was previous to this incident,” Turnley said. “I very much hope at some point if you go to watch ‘Shenandoah’ that it might invoke questions about your own life and your own circumstances and your own perceptions.”
At present, Turnley is on the tenure track at the School of Art & Design and the Residential College, which he said would be a supportive environment for him to continue his work.
“I think I always thought of myself as an educator with a camera.”