This review of the Movies with a Mission screening of Rain in a Dry Land went to press before Election Day, with the outcome still up in the air. Nevertheless, Anne Makepeace's documentary about refugee immigrants, partly filmed in Atlanta, seems like ideal viewing to help citizens settle down and get some perspective once the heat of the political process has cooled a bit.
Some of the pitched presidential campaign's low points equated Muslims with terrorists, painted Kenya as sinister, and included such unfortunate exchanges as "He's an Arab." "No, he's a decent family man." Rain in a Dry Land offers a reality check through the stories of two Somali Bantu families, both Muslim, who travel from Kenyan refugee camps to the United States and struggle to deal with, not the culture shock of a land of plenty, but haunting memories of past atrocities.
Part of the monthly Movies with a Mission series of films about Africa and the African diaspora, Rain in a Dry Land explains that in 2004, the United States began resettling 13,000 Somali Bantu, many of whom had fled from brutality in their native land. Aden, a farmer-turned-refugee, described the pervasive oppression of the Bantu in Somalia: "We couldn't even open our eyes there." The film follows the transcontinental journey of two families: Aden, his wife, Madina, and their seven kids, who end up in wintry Springfield, Mass.; and single mother Arbai and her four children, who settle in the ATL.
Early in the film, Madina and Arbai recount horrific tales of seeing their families attacked before their eyes during the Somali Civil War. Life in the refugee camp comes across as stable but severe. We see the mothers receiving their rations of maize, beans, oil and salt, which they can trade for other goods. They also take lessons to prepare for America, and learn that a husband can't force an unwilling wife to have sex: "In America, all forced sex is rape."
Aden and Madina see snow for the first time through the windows of a plane as it approaches the Newark airport. Shot on video, Rain in a Dry Land proves to be a fairly plain documentary in cinematic terms, but Makepeace unquestionably captures the strangeness of contemporary America through the eyes of the sheltered Somalis. In the most haunting image, Arbai and her daughters descend an American staircase like nervous mountaineers because they're so unused to buildings with more than one floor.
The American lessons provided a little foreshadowing, such as the class reciting the English sentence, "I shall go to the supermarket." When Madina and her sons go to a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut for food – "I want a round chicken," Madina explains – she recognizes none of the options for fried meals as poultry. A subsequent trip to the market isn't much help, either. In Somalia, the refugees learn to dial 9-1-1. In America, Arbai's daughter Sahara goes through a rebellious phase, slaps her mother and threatens to dial 9-1-1 if Arbai strikes her.
Makepeace's subjects speak candidly about their situations and, at low ebbs, communicate sorrow and frustration through their eyes. Rain in a Dry Land doesn't soft-sell the difficulties of illiterate immigrants trying to find jobs, pay their bills, and adjust to drastically different climates and cultures. At one point, Madina confesses, "We are totally overwhelmed" by their expenses and the language barrier. In another scene, she squabbles with Aden over their inability to open a childproof bottle of medicine. Rain in a Dry Land creates suspense as to whether they'll prevail.
A month ago, the Michael Moore spoof An American Carol tried to find humor in the implication that documentaries are trivial endeavors made by unpatriotic artists. Ironically, Rain in a Dry Land, which premiered on the PBS "P.O.V." series in 2007, proves to be profoundly supportive of the United States without minimizing its challenges for newcomers. The film renews the idea that you don't have to be born in America to pursue the American dream.