On a handful of weeks scattered over the past year, out-of-town filmmakers intent on capturing Garden City’s expansive, diverse cultural landscape transformed the meeting room of the Finney County Historical Museum into a makeshift studio.
The windows were blacked out, the fridge unplugged to minimize noise, cameras and audio equipment was assembled, said Steve Quakenbush, executive director of the Finney County Historical Society. And one by one, locals would sit down to document their experience with the town’s diversity.
For over a year, including four separate weeks filming in town, co-directors Steve Lerner and Reuben Aaronson and technical director and director of photography Jim Jewell have constructed the 33-minute documentary “Strangers in Town,” a look at Garden City’s history and relationship with immigration that Lerner said was born out of his and Aaronson’s interest in the national conversation on immigration.
“(It’s) gotten so polarized and locked in anger and acrimony, and all of that … What I was hearing increasingly about Garden City is that it was an incredibly diverse town, and that it was a welcoming town, and that differences were accepted and diversity was embraced. And it piqued my curiosity that maybe there was a place in Kansas that most people around the country never even heard of — or would think of as cowboy country, flyover country, conservative country — where maybe there’s something different going on about immigration that would inform the national dialogue a little bit,” Lerner said.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, at a free, public screening at the Garden City High School auditorium, “Strangers in Town” will premiere in the town that bore it. The next day, at the city’s annual Diversity Breakfast and Multicultural Summit, an all-day conference dedicated to celebrating and analyzing different cultures, the film will play again.
Premiering films with its subjects is not new to Lerner, or making documentaries about life in Kansas. For the Topeka filmmaker, a psychologist by trade, and Aaronson, an award-winning Los Angeles documentarian, the Garden City film will be their third on both accounts, following documentaries about water issues and a small town on the decline.
Their efforts on “Strangers in Town” began with a grant from Humanities Kansas, as well as support from Johnson County Community College, Washburn University and the Mariah Fund, which promotes tourism in western Kansas. The filmmakers also partnered with the Finney County Historical Society as a local sponsor, which granted space and a wealth of local history rather than funds.
With a limited budget demanding most time in town had to be used for filming, Lerner said the team largely researched as they shot. The filmmakers didn’t have a concrete plan for the film when beginning the project, instead quickly uncovering the layers and perspectives of the community through interviews. Lerner said people were glad to speak with them.
“Reuben kind of named the town ‘The Town That Never Says No,’ because I think everybody we asked if we could interview them or film them, I think everybody said yes. Everywhere we go. And that’s not typical, actually … I couldn’t help but think in the back of my mind that maybe that has something to do with the way outsiders and people from other places could come in there,” Lerner said.
For the most part, Lerner said, the city as they encountered it leaned into openness and acceptance on all fronts.
They spoke to Quakenbush, City Manager Matt Allen and Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz. They also visited with Mursal Naleye, a leader of the local Somali community, Angelica Castillo-Chappel, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in the city for 30 years, and Amy Longa, the former site manager of the Garden City International Rescue Committee office, among many other immigrants and officials at local schools, nonprofits and businesses, Lerner said.
They tried finding people that were against the flow of immigrants that had poured through the city for decades, he said. They had a hard time.
Lerner said the team spent a good amount of the time at GCHS, speaking to Principal Steve Nordby, a translator and several students. The school, a melting pot of students from 25 countries who speak 28 languages, is a snapshot of Garden City’s cultural landscape, and one inhabited by kids who have grown up only knowing diversity, Lerner said.
The word “stranger” recurred several times in interviews, Lerner said, one subject using it to describe the rush of newcomers, giving the film’s its somewhat ironic title, and many others claiming Garden City folks had “never met a stranger.”
When Castillo-Chappel described her experience as an immigrant to The Telegram, it came up again. Garden City was home, she said, and she loved it. It’s where her family lives, where her children were born, where she is a diligently involved member of the community. But sometimes, especially when thinking of those first, early years as a preteen immigrant suddenly grappling with a new language and country, she still felt like a stranger.
Naleye said he hoped people would learn from Garden City, and the benefit of embracing other cultures. Longa hoped for questions and discussion. And Castillo-Chappel wanted those who watched the documentary to understand that no matter what, they were welcome in Garden City.
After the film premieres in Garden City, it will move to screenings at schools in Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City and elsewhere in the state. Then to national and international film festivals.
For Lerner, the endeavor isn’t about money, but introducing the film to students and opening the door and adding nuance to that wider dialogue on immigration.
“I think Garden City is ahead of the curve,” he said. “Maybe, Garden City’s got something to teach the rest of the country.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.