Locally produced film examines acceptance of diversity, immigration in Garden City

photo by: Contributed Photo

Local filmmaker Steve Lerner, left, and Reuben Aaronson set up an interview in Garden City for the documentary film "Strangers in Town." The film tells the story of many immigrants of Garden City.

When it comes to immigration, Lawrence filmmaker Steve Lerner said he finds the national debate has generally become polarized, rage-filled and uncivil.

But in Garden City, a small town in a generally conservative area of southwest Kansas, the residents seem to have a different view, he said.

“There is something happening there that is much more civilized than the national dialogue would suggest,” Lerner said. “Maybe it’s got something to say about how the country can get along among our differences.”

To share the town’s views on immigration and diversity, Lerner teamed up with longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Reuben Aaronson, who is based in Los Angeles, to share the story of Garden City. The resulting 33-minute film, “Strangers in Town,” which will screen in Lawrence next weekend, tells the stories of many immigrants who have made Garden City their home.

A poster shows some of the people interviewed for the documentary film “Strangers in Town,” which shares the story of the Garden City community’s acceptance of immigration and diversity. The film will screen 3 p.m. Jan. 19, 2019, at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

As a filmmaker and a clinical psychologist, Lerner said the polarized political argument over immigration has bothered him. He said his grandparents all immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe. But some people today believe immigrants are “bad apples” who should not be allowed into the country, he said.

“That certainly would have prevented me from ever being born here,” he said.

In this political climate, Lerner said he was surprised to see a town in southwest Kansas not only ignore the debate, but also embrace immigration and diversity.

Much like other communities in southwest Kansas, Garden City has transformed in recent years, with people moving to the city from all over the world, Lerner said. As of 2015, 23 percent of Garden City’s 26,000 residents are foreign-born, according to a report from the Garden City Telegram. The community consists of a significant population of Burmese, Vietnamese, Somali, Latino and German immigrants, among others, according to the report.

“For high school students, kids in their teens, diversity is all they’ve known,” Lerner said, noting that 24 languages are spoken at Garden City High School.

Because of its diversity, in 2011 Garden City made its town emblem a multicolored yucca plant and changed the town motto to “the world grows here,” Lerner said.

“They are talking about all the food they grow, but they are also talking about all the different people who make up the community,” Lerner said of the emblem and motto. “This is a town that somehow or another has embraced diversity.”

To tell the story, Lerner and the film crew spent four weeks in Garden City interviewing local immigrants about their personal experiences and learning more about the town’s story from the county historical society. Lerner said between 50 and 70 people were interviewed.

“Nobody said no to an interview,” Lerner said. “There is an openness that is unusual.”

Lerner said he is not sure how many of the people who were interviewed are undocumented immigrants. Many of the immigrants in Garden City are legal refugees.

Only one person Lerner and his crew interviewed, a high school student, said he was undocumented, Lerner said. But he is currently back in El Salvador attempting to move back to America legally.

“Clearly there are a certain percentage of undocumented people out there, but we were sensitive about that,” he said. “It was remarkable how open people were and how friendly people were.”

Lerner said he plans to submit the film to film festivals, provide copies to schools for educational screenings and eventually publish it online.

The film has already premiered in Garden City, with many of the people who spoke to the film crew in attendance. Lerner said the town’s residents had a profound response. In a Q&A after the screening, many people reflected on their own families’ immigration stories, he said.

“It got pretty emotional for some people, even though their story may have been different,” Lerner said. “It’s remarkable to me, as a psychologist, how easy it is for many of us to forget where we came from. If this film helps people remember where they came from, that’s not a bad thing. It could help humanize and civilize the conversation, rather than ‘us versus these outsiders.'”

The documentary will screen at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire Street. Admission is free.


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