Welcome to Shelbyville is a film about change—a changing economy, a changing President, and the changing demographics of a small Southern town as Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Somali refugees wrestle with what it means to be American. Spoken by a resident of Shelbyville, the film’s central question is this: “Now are we gonna work together or are we gonna stay divided?”
The documentary is uncomfortable enough to purge the audience—people have walked out of screenings I’ve given for exactly opposite reasons—some because they believed it to be pro-immigrant “propaganda” and others because the anti-immigrant hateful remarks were too painful to bear.
And that is Shelbyville’s greatest strength: it reflects reality.
“These fears, of losing jobs and losing our identity to refugees, these are our fears,” a lady from a small town here in South Dakota confessed after a screening.
But as people get to know refugees and listen to their stories, I have seen positive change, both on-screen and in audiences.
In the film, one resident of Shelbyville worries that “They [Muslims] are gonna start blowing up in Shelbyville.”
But after getting to know her Somali neighbors, she admits, “I could have been her, but God chose for me to be over here . . . no, I could have been one of them.”
And at a screening I gave, one older lady remarked, “I never thought about the fact that my ancestors fled persecution in Europe, so I’m a descendant of refugees. And unless we’re Native American, all of us came from abroad.”
To see ourselves in the stranger, to realize their tragedy could have been ours, and to use that realization to propel us toward greater compassion, those are the changes Shelbyville promotes, and the changes we must seek for ourselves and our community.
By Amy S.Z.
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