Editors Note: Today is the premiere of the documentary Welcome to Shelbyville - by the award-winning filmmaker Kim Snyder- on PBS. The film has generated wide-ranging discussion and controversy about the definition of who is an American and how to integrate immigrants in the USA. Moreover, the United States State Department has showcased the film in order to show an audience around the world how the American society is being transformed. WardheerNews is pleased to share with its readers this exclusive interview with Kim Snyder.
WardheerNews (WDN): What sparked your interest in making the documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville?
Kim Snyder (K.S.): I wanted to capture the element of change in America as it is currently manifest in demographic change; and a dynamic year in the nation's history with the election of President Obama. I spoke to many people in the policy world about immigration, and what stories were and weren't being told, and although there were many stories about hate crimes, and a lot of negativity, there wasn't much out there about regular people in small-town America navigating the waters of immigrant integration. They led me to the efforts of the Welcoming America initiative and to Shelbyville as a microcosm of rapid demographic shift.
WDN. How did your educational background help you in making the film?
K.S. My graduate work in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has had a lot of bearing on my work, particularly with this most recent film. I think I have, perhaps, a greater sensitivity than those who studied only film, for example, to the policy issues through the exposure and work in international affairs. Through a program of the US State Department, the film has traveled extensively throughout the world and I went with it to Nigeria last August - it was actually its premiere. I was pleased that the story proved to be relevant for international audiences, including Africa, and since then, I have deliberately done a lot of work to think about how this film, and the documentary genre in general, can be a useful tool in the realm of cultural diplomacy.
To this end, I have also traveled and screened the film at the EU in Brussels and elsewhere throughout Europe where immigrant immigration and the issues surrounding it are, in many ways, even more challenging. The US State Department's division of Population, Refugees, and Migration has shown the film at an international workshop, and on May 25th, the Asst. Secretary of State will host a screening and panel discussion at the State Department to discuss issues of refugee resettlement with the voice of a Somali refugee included.
WDN: What was the reaction of those who saw the film when it was shown by the State Department?
K.S. The reaction of people in Nigeria were varied; some felt there might be lessons learned about how to be more welcoming in interfaith communities through the story of Shelbyville, others had thoughts about democracy, and some about the need to better understand the realities of what might be a tough road for those seeking to make a new home in the US.
Mostly the reaction was very positive and appreciative that the Somali community was given some opportunity to voice their points of view given the preponderance of generally negative press that community has been given here in the US. In Dublin, for example, and almost every city, there have been Somalis in the audience curious about the film, often recognizing some similarities with their own experience, but interested to learn of their fellow Somalis living in places like Shelbyville.
WDN: Before this film, what did you know (or hear) about the Somalis?
K.S. Before making the film, I had some familiarity with issues of refugees in the US but not particular to the Somalis and knew only that they are currently one of the largest refugee communities in the US. I, of course, knew something of the background of the situation in Somalia, and that, like so many others, they were seeking refuge and a better life from a war-torn recent past, and that many lovely and educated people were fleeing as is the case with so many cultures that experience political unrest and hardship. I always felt it painful that so many of the depictions of Somalis in the press were focused on either the pirates or terrorism, and that there was little opportunity to learn more of the positive aspects of the history and culture. I wish I could have captured more, but it was understandably difficult for the community to open up and trust - I love Hawo from the film - we stay in touch - and hopefully the film can help to spark more interest in learning more about these new neighbors.
WDN: Thank you
K.S. You are welcome.
* Welcome to Shelbyville: A Documentary Review By Hassan Abukar
Other interviews that WardheerNews had with Somali professionals and scholars
- An Interview with Dr. Mohamed Omer, the
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