Film shows Shelbyville's struggle with immigrants
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SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A new documentary that will be broadcast nationwide in the spring follows the reception of a group of Somali immigrants in Shelbyville - a small town about an hour south of Nashville best known as the home of the Tennessee Walking Horse.
The film chronicles the difficulties some longtime residents have in accepting the changes that immigration is bringing to their community, as well as the evolution of some residents' attitudes as they get to know the Somalis through a series of shared meals and dialogues.
"Welcome to Shelbyville" saw its U.S. debut this week at a screening in Shelbyville for community leaders. One of those present was Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray.
Ray is seen at the beginning of the film complaining that Somali immigrants, unlike Hispanics, are "not nice" and "not easy to deal with."
For example, "When they go to a store, they feel like they can negotiate," he says. Haggling over prices is commonplace in Somalia.
But toward the end of the film he seems to be on better terms with the Somalis, many of whom are refugees who settled in Shelbyville to work at a chicken processing plant. In one of the final scenes, Ray is seated at a banquet table with several Somali residents, including the imam of a local mosque, Mohammed Ali.
After joking that he's always wanted to meet Muhammad Ali - the boxer - Ray declares to those at the table that they need to meet more often in order to get to know and trust each other.
Although not made explicit in the film, many of the meetings between the Shelbyville natives and the Somali immigrants came about through the Welcoming Tennessee initiative - a nonprofit program that promotes understanding by bringing immigrants and longtime residents together.
At one of the meetings, documented in the film, Shelbyville Times-Gazette reporter Brian Mosely goes to a dinner meeting with Ali and Hawo Siyad, a Somali immigrant who works at the local Tyson chicken plant.
The Somalis are upset with Mosely because of a series of articles that they feel portrayed them in a negative light. Mosely says he tried to find Somali leaders to talk with for the stories, but no one could speak English.
He says he was distressed to learn that even local emergency management officials had no Somali contacts.
Mosely said after the film that even though he is portrayed somewhat negatively, his articles brought the tensions in the community out in the open and helped begin the dialogue that took root with Welcoming Tennessee.
Film director and producer Kim Snyder, who attended the screening and participated in a panel discussion afterward, said the film was selected by the U.S. State Department to be shown abroad as part of its American Documentary Showcase. She has already traveled to Nigeria with it.
The reaction there was inspiring, she said.
"People stood up and said, 'Shelbyville has lessons we need to learn here.'"
"Welcome to Shelbyville" will be shown nationwide on Public Broadcasting Service channels this spring.