The movement of people from one place to another, how we acclimate to other cultures, and the resulting fusion of humanity has always fascinated me. During my Masters work in foreign relations at Johns Hopkins, I was most interested in social change as it played out in more personal rather than national or historic narratives. Welcome to Shelbyville evolved out of a deep desire over the past decade to tell stories that would not only raise awareness about complex social problems, but that could go one step beyond to highlight people and communities that were tackling these problems with innovative solutions that might ignite social change.
Welcome to Shelbyville chronicles a year in the life of one town in the rural South grappling with the challenges of rapid demographic change. With focus on Shelbyville as a microcosm of current day trends in immigration that are landing an increasing number of newcomers in rural locales, my intent was to provide a snapshot of this phenomenon through the voices of ordinary citizens, both U.S. and foreign-born, who are often navigating these challenges without much precedent or guidance.
Luci and Miguel, two of the film’s subjects, who would never self identify as activists, are plain-spoken folks who become local ambassadors serving as a bridge between the various residents around these issues. Through their work with an initiative called ‘Welcoming Tennessee’, they provide a portrait of what successful grassroots movements that come from a place of authenticity can look like. Together, they seed the ground for others to become involved and form the basis for narratives that counter the more negative stories mainstream media has tended to highlight.
Embarking on this journey on the eve of the 2008 Presidential election undoubtedly had a great impact on how the story unfolded for both myself and for the subjects of the film. Although I initially set out to tell a story of immigration in rural America, as I found myself in a part of the country that had seen hard struggles in the civil rights movement, it felt necessary to look back at that history of integration and how it intersected with the current newcomers who were no longer of European ethnicity (a wave of Latino immigrants in the 1990s was followed by the arrival of hundreds of Somali refugees of Muslim faith).
What I felt most compelled to capture was, in a sense, the layered anatomy of integration in this one town. Through the voices of local African Americans like Beverly Hewitt and Marilyn Massengale, whose families had lived there for generations, the election of the first African American President seemed to represent a potential to become a greater part of a national conversation from which they had felt excluded. How that had bearing on their own immediate lives where many strangers were now attempting to settle involved a choice: to repeat cycles that often excluded the next group of newcomers or to make connections with their own outsider pasts, mobilize, and break those cycles.
An early survey of local perceptions toward immigrants I was privy to spelled out a major disconnect between the attitudes toward immigrants of the past and the immigrants of today. Spending much time over the year with families like the Gonzalez family — as Miguel and his wife Guadalupe patriotically stood in their living room, hand over their hearts as the national anthem played during the Presidential inauguration, I was reminded of my own Russian grandfather and his passionate desire to become a valued citizen in the country he fought hard to settle in.
My own perspective as I shuttled back and forth over the course of a year between New York City and Shelbyville, Tennessee, was simply that integration is not easy for anyone, and that a more nuanced national dialogue about immigration needed to be taking place, perhaps taking cues from folks like the ones in Shelbyville with less of an eye on political correctness and with no particular political agenda other than that of living more harmoniously with their neighbors. With screenings that have spanned the globe from Abuja, Nigeria to Harlem, New York it is my hope that Welcome to Shelbyville can continue to spark constructive dialogue around issues of xenophobia, racism, and migration that I believe to be one of the most critical global conversations in the world today.
— Kim A. Snyder, Producer and Director of Welcome to Shelbyville