For the Love of Rutland
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Jennifer Maytorena Taylor
The words “No drug parking” appear etched on a fence seen in Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s powerful film For the Love of Rutland. One can’t tell if the words are sarcastic graffiti or a polite caveat. Rutland’s film offers a sobering portrait of Rutland, Vermont in late 2016 and early 2017. Jobs in the manufacturing town are scarce and the opioid crisis is taking its toll as drug addiction ravages a community that already faces considerable hardships. The words “No drug parking” aptly embody the fascinating contradictions that Taylor observes. On one hand, Rutland has serious problems that are an open secret. On the other, some members of the community acknowledge these problems with little more than neighbourly passive aggressiveness. The film puts audiences in an environment that captures perfectly the tensions and ideological rifts of contemporary America.
The heart of Taylor’s film is Stacie, a mother struggling to make ends meet. She is also recovering from a battle with an extremely addictive painkiller and staying away from heroin, and the film observes as she fights her addictions through a mix of methods from both the clinic and the street since community support networks are scarce. As a guide, Stacie is frank, candid, open, and quietly compelling. Characters as strong, dynamic, and complex are too rare, and the journey she undertakes in For the Love of Rutland finds hope in a dire situation.
Stacie lives in poverty and, despite the pleas from her kids, invites Taylor to bring her camera into their home and observe the conditions in which they live. They aren’t pretty, but most houses and yards in the neighbourhood have a similar edge. This community has been hit hard, yet the people are still here, barely surviving day by day, and they have nowhere else to go.
The other key character of For the Love of Rutland is the city’s former mayor, Chris Louras. The progressive mayor sees an opportunity for renewal in his small city. He announces that Rutland will accept 100 Syrian refugees as part of the city’s economic diversification plan. However, few citizens share his sense of duty when abject poverty is reality that many of them face. Stacie therefore becomes more than just an emblem of Rutland’s poverty and its struggle with an addiction. She is one of many people who feel conflicted when at the prospect of foreigners receiving aid when Americans like herself are jobless, collecting empty cans and bottles discarded by neighbours who welcome other warmly.
Observing a serious dilemma on levels both micro and macro, Taylor’s film witnesses how elements of poverty, joblessness, and hopelessness leave members of the city turning inward. The jovial “Rutland welcomes” signs featuring a heart with an arrow are transformed by hearts bisected with a shamshir sword—another variation of the NIMBY-ish passive aggressive signage that peppers the city. Innocuous evidence of the town’s ways appears in a well-intentioned scene in which the director attends a vigil in which Rutlanders pay tribute to lives lost on 9/11.
Underneath this pride for the first responders lost on that tragic day are the currents of xenophobia and Islamophobia that rippled throughout America amid post-9/11 fear. These fears are more pronounced at rallies and in town meetings where concerned citizens of the predominantly white city express retrograde ideas about ISIS moving in. Members of the “Rutland First” brigade invite Taylor’s cameras into their home to observe as they read westernized guides on Sharia law and joke about Allah. Many other Rutlanders simply think that the modest influx of refugees will compound the city’s heroin problem. Seen in the context of the recent protests to address and (finally) rectify systemic racism in America, For the Love of Rutland offers an unfiltered view the deeply entrenched politics and conservative ideologies that preserve a cozy status quo for few citizens at the expense of many.
However, these events happened in 2016. Cut to a tragic election fuelled by the fury of white rage, and Donald Trump’s Muslim ban made the refugee situation a moot point, while ironically putting Rutland (and particularly Louras) in the spotlight for sticking its neck out to help the Syrians. Taylor and her small crew are so well embedded within the community, though, that the film barely needs to mention Trump and the GOP to tap into crisis in which America finds itself. Rutland is a microcosm of Trump’s America.
This verité-style observation of Americans struggling within divided communities observes the fallacies of populist promises and “America first” empty rhetoric. Through minor details recorded in the immersive observation, Rutland conveys the normalization of divisive politics into a community’s fabric. The film sees the inertia that arises when citizens vote for a leader who promises change by stepping backwards, rather than forwards. The people with problems still have the same problems, but they’re getting worse.
Taylor provides a bleak portrait, but it would be irresponsible to look away when so much dirty laundry is aired in public and when the issues are so intricately linked. In Stacie, though, the film finds the spark of goodwill that still beats in America. She invests her time and energy into helping herself by bettering her community through volunteer work and youth outreach, she realizes the parallels between the struggle the Rutlanders and the plight of the Syrians. Her growth makes the film a quietly moving essay on equitable sharing and community building. Perhaps there is hope for America after all.
For the Love of Rutland screens at Hot Docs’ online festival.