Immigrants have long served a crucial role in Garden City's economy and culture. They helped build the railroad, helped work the farms, and now help keep the beef packing plants running.

In October 2016, Garden City was thrown into the national conversation when the FBI announced that three men were charged with attempting to attack a local mosque, which served a growing population of Somali Muslim immigrants in the city. Local residents gathered in support of their Somali neighbors, hosting rallies in Stevens Park and in the neighborhood where the Somali residents worship and live.

When Lawrence-based documentary filmmakers Tess Banion and Bob Hurst heard this news, they decided their next project was going to take place in Garden City.

“Even before the bomb plot, I had heard that Garden City was just a different kind of place in terms of how immigrants are welcomed,” Hurst said. “At the time, I was just getting interested in the turn the popular conversation has taken about immigration. It concerns me because when I was growing up, the national narrative was about the United States being a melting pot, and now it seems to be more of a less welcoming attitude towards immigrants. I think Garden City is the exception to that, and that's why it's so interesting to me.”

Their documentary will be a feature length film, so 90 to 100 minutes, and will try to illustrate how Garden City’s diverse culture works by diving deep into immigrants’ stories.

“This is not going to be a journalistic piece,” Hurst said. “It’s more of a portrait. I think it’s more personal and more in depth about the lives of particular individuals who have come to Garden City and have been there for a long time, or new arrivals and what they have gone through personally and what their stories are.”

Hurst and Banion are not new to the documentary scene. Hurst’s last project was “The Listeners,” a feature-length documentary that tells the stories of people who volunteer on suicide hotlines. Banion recently worked with the University of Kansas and the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a film about the life of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Hurst said their goal for their new film is for viewers to reflect on the lives of others, and find that every resident of Garden City is working toward the same goals.

“I’d like viewers to think about the people that we typically compartmentalize as immigrants,” Hurst said. “Those people are really us. They have the same concerns and cares that we do, and they are working so hard to make their lives better for themselves and their families. That's why they come here.”

To help understand the mindset of long-term Garden City residents, Hurst and Banion have enlisted the help of Nancy Harness, former mayor and longtime resident of Garden City. Harness said she is excited to be a part of the film and hopes that the documentary can serve to be an ambassador for the town.

“I think that the community is unique in how we dealt with the diversity of cultures, and it's nice to have that be recognized by people from outside the community,” Harness said. “ I think part of my job here is to be an ambassador for Garden City and western Kansas. It’s an intriguing place and interesting community. To be part of the crew to introduce that community to a larger audience is cool.”

Harness said she hopes that residents who are hesitant of immigrants watch the film and reflect on why Garden City has welcomed immigrants in the past.

“Part of what happened was that in 1980, we opened the world's largest beef packing plant,” she said. “They needed 3,000 folks to just keep the plant running. Well, where are those workers going to come from? When the community decided that's how they wanted to move forward economically, we basically said as a community we will open our doors to new people because that's the only way this will work. I hope that this film gives the life-long locals who might be hesitant to this immigrant change a moment to stop and think about how the only reason Garden works is that everybody feels some ownership to it.”

Filming already has begun in Garden City, and the crew intends to continue production through most of the year. They are still in the process of identifying individuals who will be featured in the film, but Hurst said that he expects the film to be finished in summer 2018.

Hurst said he hopes that the film can make its debut in Garden City.

“We’d love to have a premiere when it’s finished in Garden City,” Hurst said. “We will do festivals after that, and then find a distribution partner for television and streaming.”

Filmmakers focused on Garden City

Hurst and Banion aren't going to be the only film crew working in and around Garden City this summer. Another documentary, led by psychologist and filmmaker Stephen Lerner, will be shot at the same time. Although similar in subject matter, Lerner’s film will focus on the people of Garden City who are working to close the ideological and political divides surrounding immigration.

Lerner was the director of a film about southwest Kansas titled, “When the Well Runs Dry” highlighting the dwindling water level of the Ogallala Aquifer. Also based out of Lawrence, Lerner is partnering with award-winning documentarian Reuben Aaronson from Los Angeles.

“The reason I wanted to do this film is that I am a psychologist, and I’m very interested in the huge degree of polarization that we have in our culture right now,” Lerner said. “It is getting more difficult to manage and navigate differences, and the more I’ve learned about Garden City is that although there are challenges there, Garden City does a better job managing differences there than many places in the United States.”

Lerner said he wants Garden City to show off its success to the world.

“With Reuben’s lead on artistry, we certainly hope to make this a beautiful film,” Lerner said. “We want to make Garden City shine that way. Reuben thinks we can shoot this in a nontraditional way, and so we want to capture that visually.When people hear about a small town in Kansas that has this much diversity, they think I am fooling them. It’ll be exciting to tell the story of Garden City to these people.”

Both films will be in production throughout the summer and fall. Lerner said that they do not have a set release date, but viewers can expect the premiere to be in the first half of 2018.

Contact James M. Dobson at jdobson@gctelegram.com