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Shelbyville is focus of new documentary

Thursday, September 2, 2010

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A new documentary about Shelbyville, and its peaceful response to Somali immigration, will be screened for community leaders in Shelbyville on Sept. 12, and tentative plans are to have a public screening in October.

The documentary, "Welcome to Shelbyville," will be screened at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sept. 15 and will air on PBS stations nationwide next spring, as part of the series "Independent Lens." It was directed by Kim Snyder.

A local committee -- Sarah Hunt, Marilyn Massengale, the Rev. Kent Lewis, Luci Taylor and former city manager Ed Craig -- has worked with the BeCause Foundation, which produced the movie, and San Francisco-based Active Voice, and with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) to arrange a local screening for the documentary. Craig said the committee's intent is not to promote the documentary per se, but just to make sure that local residents of all viewpoints get the chance to see it before they are asked about it as it becomes better known.

Nevertheless, Craig and Taylor told the Times-Gazette they believe Shelbyville residents will be pleased with the way the community is portrayed in the documentary.

"I thought it was very good," said Craig. " ... I think they're going to see a caring community dealing with issues that are common throughout the country."

A number of Somali refugees, brought to the U.S. by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, moved to Bedford County to take jobs in poultry processing. There have been culture clashes and misunderstandings, and the documentary shows comments unfavorable to Somali immigration, but the documentary portrays Shelbyville as eventually accepting the immigrants. The documentary even portrays some specific residents changing their attitudes as they get to know the Somalis.

The documentary was primarily shot during the days of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Times-Gazette staff writer Brian Mosely is interviewed in the documentary. While Mosely was working on his award-winning December 2007 series about Somali immigration, local emergency management officials contacted him. They needed to spread important health information and, to Mosely's surprise, literally had no idea whom to contact to reach the Somali community. After Mosely's series was published, the emergency management officials got in touch with the local mosque and with TIRRC.

Craig and Taylor said the recent controversy over a mosque in Murfreesboro, including suspected arson, demonstrates the timeliness of the documentary and highlights Shelbyville's peaceful response.

Taylor, a third-generation Mexican-American who said she stresses assimilation and learning the language when she teaches classes to new immigrants, said some of the immigrants have had to learn American ways, such as freedom of speech and peaceful conflict resolution.

Craig said that more than 200 community leaders are being invited to attend the Sept. 12 screening at Central High School. Then, in October, TIRRC's "Welcoming Tennessee" initiative hopes to have public screenings in 14 cities across the state, including Shelbyville.

The screening and panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, one of the oldest Washington think tanks, will be attended by Rebecca Carson, chief of the office of citizenship for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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