GARDEN CITY — Filmmakers Steve Lerner and Reuben Aaronson didn’t create “Strangers In Town,” a documentary about Garden City, for film festivals.
Instead, they created it to get the message out about a small Kansas town that has accepted those that have traveled from around the world to live there.
While the film wasn’t made for a festival, that hasn’t stopped it from picking up two people’s choice awards.
The most recent award was handed out Jan. 20 at the Borrego Springs Film Festival. Additionally, the film received an audience favorite award in 2019 at the Film Festival at Brown’s Point.
“We made the film really to get this message out, and we screened it all over the country, but both of these film festivals that gave us awards. They were the award given by the vote of the viewers at the festival and that means a lot to me because that means the message of the film is resonating with people,” said Lerner, the film’s director of photography. “These weren’t awards made by film critics.”
The film, which was created following a period where immigration was a national conversation, tells the story of those who are immigrants and the acceptance they have received.
Lerner said winning an award at a festival is subjective and difficult.
“Like this last festival, they had almost 560 films submitted out of which they chose like 60, and only a fraction of those films got awards,” Lerner said.
The film, which was completed in 2019, tells the story of Garden City residents who were born there and immigrated to the town.
Lerner said the film crew spent four weeks in Garden City, and worked 12 to 14 hour days. During the first week, filmmakers talked to 25 people in depth.
The film features Garden City residents from such countries as Vietnam, Sudan, Myanmar, Uganda and Mexico.
Several Garden City High School students are also featured in the film, and it is noted in the documentary there are 24 languages spoken at the school.
“They were inspiring kids, very open telling their personal stories and it’s not that they never knew discrimination,” Lerner said. “Many of them talked about how their parents faced discrimination when they first got there. Garden City is not perfect. There’s bigotry and discrimination there like everywhere else. It’s just that it has evolved way beyond that. It’s very unpopular to be a racist in Garden City.”
Garden City High School principal Steve Nordby said participation in the documentary was a way for students and their families to tell their stories.
"Due to our geographical isolation from the urban centers in Kansas, we sometimes feel unappreciated and a little misunderstood," Nordby said. "The entire film crew took the time to get to know our students, staff and families and did a great job of telling our stories."
Nordby said the school takes pride in the successes being achieved by the film.
"The film does a wonderful job of showing that any difference can be overcome when people get the opportunity to grow and contribute in an environment based on respect," Nordby said.
As this film continues to be viewed at film festivals and online, Lerner said he hopes it humanizes the face of immigration and diversity.
“Among the first people we talked to was the police chief, and he said, ‘There’s no room for division in our town over your country of origin, the color of your skin and your sexual orientation. There’s no room here for hatred,'” Lerner said, “and that was very impressive to me because I was a stranger in town at that moment, and here’s this guy that doesn’t know me telling me in front of a camera what his belief is and it was very impressive that from the top down, there’s a sense we are in this together, we are gonna thrive together.
"We are one community, not that we’re all the same, people recognize there are a lot of differences, but when you talk to the high school kids, if you watch the film, the high school kids are just amazing kids and they are thriving and the town is thriving.”