Popular documentary about immigration to have another screening in Lawrence; online participation welcome

photo by: Contributed

Filmmakers, from left, Jim Jewell, Reuben Aaronson and Stephen Lerner appear Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at the Borrego Springs Film Festival in Southern California, where they screened their documentary "Strangers in Town," which is about Garden City's successful immigration story.

Long before the images of families separated at the border outraged many Americans, Lawrence resident Stephen Lerner was quietly outraged by the increasingly ugly tone of the immigration debate.

“I started feeling very uncomfortable with watching that happen, both in the political process and in discussions everywhere, because the fact is we are a country of immigrants,” he told the Journal-World recently. “Unless you are a Native American, your family came from somewhere else, and it’s easy to forget that.”

In the interest of not forgetting, Lerner set out a few years ago to make a film about Garden City, a town of 26,000 in southwestern Kansas that has become the unlikely setting for a success story about the value of diversity — a story that began with the opening of the world’s largest meat-packing plant in 1980, which attracted thousands of immigrants from all over the world, and a story that continues today with a school district that includes 24 languages and where the students — happily, the film indicates — “have known nothing but diversity.”

If those children, many of whom are interviewed in the film, can be OK with it, Lerner asks, “why can’t everybody else?”

Lerner’s film, as the Journal-World previously reported, made its Lawrence debut in January of last year. The half-hour documentary, called “Strangers in Town,” packed the house at the Lawrence Arts Center, despite a severe winter storm that day, and Lerner has been busy since screening the production at various events around the country.

Though the film has garnered a lot of attention and even some awards, including from a festival in Tacoma, Wash., Lerner notes that “it’s not really a film festival film.”

“We didn’t design it for film festivals. We designed it to add Garden City’s positive immigration story to the national conversation,” he said.

photo by: Contributed

The poster for the Jan. 21 screening of the film “Strangers in Town” at the Lawrence Public Library.

Last week he and his film team were in Southern California screening the documentary at the Borrego Springs Film Festival. He is quick to credit the success of the film to Reuben Aaronson, co-director and director of photography; Jim Jewell, technical director; and Greg Allen, who created original music and mixed sound for the film.

On Tuesday, Lerner will screen the film at 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Public Library, but this free screening will be a deluxe version, as it will include a question-and-answer session and an opportunity to watch and participate online. Lerner will be at the library with professor Debra Bolton of Kansas State University, and others associated with the film, including Aaronson, will be available via the online Zoom platform.

Those who wish to participate online can register at https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Zf4pcqXPS3yGWCYHVZHdTg.

Lerner acknowledges that Garden City has not always been as welcoming as it is today.

“Garden City has a racist past like everywhere else, but it evolved quicker than a lot of places,” he said.

The film recounts early and even recent, though isolated, backlash to the town’s immigrant population. One person interviewed in the film says the town decided that it could make a “blessing or curse” out of the situation and chose to make its many “strangers in town” a blessing. Since 2011, the town’s motto has been “the world grows here.”

Lerner, originally from Washington, D.C., is a psychologist as well as a filmmaker. Before moving to Lawrence in 2002, he worked at the renowned Menninger Foundation in Topeka, where he started the department for educational films. This is his third film about Kansas. The first two were about the history of Florence, Kan., and water issues facing the state.

His family name has been in the news recently as his son, Ben Lerner, has been receiving accolades for his critically acclaimed novel “The Topeka School.” The book was named one of the top 10 books of 2019 by The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, and it is a finalist for the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award.

“Yep,” Lerner says, “we’re proud of our little baby. I remind people I used to change his diapers.”


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