Filmmaker Weighs in on News in Shelbyville

Posted on January 11, 2011

Filmmaker Kim Snyder responds to some recent news coverage around her upcoming film Welcome to Shelbyville, which airs on Independent Lens this May. The documentary profiles Shelbyville, TN on the eve of the 2008 election and the town’s struggle to come to terms with issues around an influx of Somali immigrants and their own ideals about opportunity and patriotism. 

While recently in Dublin on a tour with my documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville, my partners and I received an impassioned plea from some citizens in Corvallis, Oregon for permission to use our film as a means to initiate healing dialogue in that town following a troubling incident.


A Corvallis mosque had been set on fire, presumably as retribution after a local Somali man who worshipped there had been arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up a van at a Portland Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. I wasn’t quite sure whether screening our film would further fan the flames, or help foster harmony in the town, but we bet on the latter and were right. Once I got home to New York, I learned that things were getting tense in Shelbyville, too. It began with a report that anti-American graffiti was found at the very Tyson chicken plant in Shelbyville where I’d filmed and where some of the Somali subjects in the film currently work.  

There was also a rumor that the women’s restroom there had been torched. Both proved to be untrue. Days later a mysterious bomb threat was called in to the plant. It too, proved to be a hoax.  In phone conversations with some residents over the past day or so, suspicions surfaced that these incidents might simply be attempts by locals who disliked and distrusted the Somali community to “stir things up,” but either way, the tension there continues to rise. Still, locals who want to foster a dialogue between neighbors in Shelbyville soldier on, much like those in Corvallis. Welcome to Shelbyville is a film about a phenomenon that is hardly unique to one town. Our intent was to capture, through the voices of ordinary citizens, a sense of how small-town America is grappling with rapid demographic shifts against the backdrop of a particularly dynamic time in the nation’s history.   

There are layers of connections between race and immigration, and what I saw as some reason to be hopeful for opportunities for coalition building around these challenges.  We hope the film serves as a jumping off point for sorely needed, constructive dialogue around the issues that immigration brings up for us personally, to reflect on our own immigrant pasts, and to question how we might foster better understanding between longtime residents of the U.S. and their foreign-born neighbors. Our recent tour has taken us from Washington D.C. to Belgium to Ireland, and made clear that while there are differences between our continents, xenophobia is a global issue, as are the experiences of displaced people everywhere who are trying to make a life in a new and unfamiliar country. Likewise, we saw stellar efforts to foster inter-community dialog and tolerance everywhere we went. We hope the film continues to spark inspired dialogue.


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