More than 120 people gathered in the Garden City High School auditorium Wednesday for the world premiere of “Strangers in Town,” a documentary about Garden City from out-of-town filmmakers, getting a taste of the layers of the area’s blend of cultures and getting a glimpse of their city as viewed from the outside.
The documentary, created by co-directors Stephen Lerner and Reuben Aaronson and technical director Jim Jewell, explored the immigrant experience in Garden City, from the diverse school district local children grew up in, to what the city, police department and other local entities did to offer support, to the stories of individual families or individuals, such as a student who returned to El Salvador rather than be deported.
“I thought it was great, and so was the screening the next day at the diversity summit. Two different audiences, but it was very moving for us.,” Lerner said. “Both Reuben and I and Jim felt it was the greatest place we could possibly be for a screening because ... the city was where the film came into being and where we learned whatever we do know about Garden City. From people, many of whom were in the audience.”
The film has to face a few minor edits, Lerner said. Once completely finished, he said he, Aaronson and Jewell hope to make it available online. It will also eventually be on Humanities Kansas’ website.
After a half-hour of familiar faces and locations, Lerner and Aaronson took questions and comments from the crowd.
Viewers responded warmly, asking about the film-making process, sharing their own experiences and thanking for them for the film. One woman addressed nationwide issues the city was still facing, such as deportation or the recent closure of the International Rescue Committee, and how it could help its students and citizens in light of them.
One woman’s only suggestion: the title be changed to “Home.”
Pockets of high school students were scattered throughout the auditorium, several of which saw themselves on screen either walking through the hall or being interviewed in classrooms.
GCHS student Johb Silva said he really enjoyed the film’s message of inclusion, and felt it represented the high school well. There were some nuances it missed, he said, such as the discrimination people of color still face in the area regularly. But the diversity itself and the positivity and acceptance throughout the city felt true to life.
Silva’s classmate, Jhamel Transfiguracion, an immigrant from the Philippines, said he found the film inspiring and reflected his experience moving there.
“Just how everyone would come together and … be together as a community … They make a reason for you to actually call this your home, where they make you feel comfortable and safe,” Transfiguracion said.
Both students also learned things they didn’t know about their community, from the segregation at the Big Pool and the movie theater to the history of the meatpacking presence in the area.
The next day, the film played again at the City of Garden City’s Multicultural Summit, giving the filmmakers reactions from an entirely different crowd. At the regional summit, attended by several people from surrounding counties or other parts of the state, responded with moving reactions, Lerner said.
They asked why the filmmakers had not included African or Asian families among its featured families, which Lerner said was partially a result of he and his partners’ limited time in town, and partially because many African immigrants they had met had to travel to America without their families. Regardless he said he found the question thought-provoking and welcomed the feedback.
At both screenings, people approached him and Aaronson with powerful, personal reactions, Lerner said.
“Reuben felt … (the screenings) were one of the very best screenings he had ever been at … and he’s been at a ton. And I would have to agree,” Lerner said. “It’s wonderful to interact with people after the screenings.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Jim Jewell's title. He is technical director on "Strangers in Town."