Sunday, May 22, 2011

Welcome to Tyson Foods

In August 2008, controversy erupted in Shelbyville, Tennessee when the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr replaced Labor Day as one of eight paid holidays in the new Tyson Foods union contract. Such a headline generating event would seem to be a crucial topic to broach in any documentary examining the town’s reaction to a recent in-flux of Somali immigrants. However, it just did not make the cut for filmmaker Kim A. Snyder. Instead, she goes out of her way to emphasize Shelbyville’s geographic proximity to Pulaski, Tennessee, the birthplace of the KKK, in Welcome to Shelbyville (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on Independent Lens.

Tyson Foods has quite a history employing immigrant workers. In fact, they were indicted (but later acquitted) on Federal charges of smuggling illegal labor into the country (further context missing from Welcome). They currently employ many legal Somali refugees, like the film’s central POV character, Hawo Siyad, a former nurse on-track to become an American citizen.

Welcome is a truly frustrating film, because it ignores so many obvious avenues of inquiry. Those who have seen Desert Flower, the story of Somali super-model Waris Dirie, will remember a scene in which a male countryman tries to prevent her from receiving adequate healthcare for the botched “female circumcision” she endured as a young girl. Do refugees like Siyad still face this kind of traditional misogyny within the immigrant community? We will not find out from Welcome.

Snyder’s documentary is only concerned with what the people of Shelbyville can do for the Somali immigrants. Any notion that recent arrivals should also work to assimilate is completely foreign (if you will) to the film’s world view. There is absolutely no room in Welcome for competing narratives, critical context, or nuance of any sort. However, on the plus side, the food looks delicious and we also hear from Shelbyville’s surprisingly funky marching band.

Throwing subtlety to the wind, Snyder shot most of her primary interview footage in the time leading up to Obama’s inauguration, to capitalize on the constant “historic moment” choruses. Frankly, Welcome is so unbalanced in its presentation and so simplistic in its analysis, it is not worthy of the prestige that comes from the Independent Lens imprimatur. Nevertheless, it airs this coming Tuesday (5/24) on most PBS outlets.