Still from “Garden City, Kansas.” The film includes live-action interviews with Garden City residents. (courtesy Garden Films)
Award-winning documentary by KU professor Bob Hurst chronicles a white supremacist plot in Garden City, Kansas
Garden City, Kansas, isn’t the community that outsiders might think it is.
Far from being culturally homogeneous, the city is home to immigrants who have brought with them a multitude of languages, backgrounds and beliefs. But as diverse as these folks are, they have embraced the United States as their home.
Unfortunately, some of their neighbors don’t see things that way. In 2016, white supremacists plotted to set off a bomb in a housing complex and wreak havoc on the Muslim community.
News of the thwarted plot caught the attention of filmmaker and University of Kansas professor Bob Hurst, whose documentary “Garden City, Kansas” explores issues of immigration, domestic terrorism and what it truly means to be an American. The film is a 2022 recipient of the Better Angels Lavine Fellowship, awarded to filmmakers who tell stories focusing on America’s diversity.
Hurst said that the terrorist reaction to immigration in Garden City piqued his interest because it provided “an interesting snapshot of what was happening in America at that moment. And I think it’s continuing.”
“I’m really familiar with the struggles that rural America has in keeping communities vibrant and alive,” he said. The documentary shifts between live-action interviews with Garden City residents and animated footage chronicling the bombing conspiracy.
At about 1 hour 20 minutes, “Garden City, Kansas” is a quick watch that nonetheless covers a lot of territory.
“There might be adjustments, but we’re pretty far along in post-production,” Hurst said. “We had, probably, 110 hours of footage. The direction of the film evolved as we were filming, and as we figured out what the story was.” The film is expected to enter the festival circuit and seek secure distribution.
In a way, Hurst said, Garden City is a microcosm of the United States in an era of dynamic but uncertain change.
“The story we tell ourselves about this country is that it’s an idea — a place to grow, and a place that people want to go to,” he said. “A long time ago, we said ‘melting pot,’ but that’s a term that’s fallen out of use.”
Originally, Hurst said, the story line about the conspiracy wasn’t part of the film.
“But after about six months,” he said, “it became apparent that telling the story of the conspiracy was necessary to put in relief, or in contrast, how hard everybody is working to create a community. And what it would mean if that was lost.”
The FBI foiled the bombing plot with the help of informant Dan Day. Three men — Curtis Allen, Patrick Stein and Gavin Wright — were found guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to violate the housing rights of their intended victims. In addition, Wright was convicted of lying to the FBI.
“We talked at length with Dan Day, but in the end, he declined to go on camera to be interviewed,” Hurst said. “So we basically constructed that part of the story from court testimony, relying on Day’s version of events.”
Animation proved to be an effective storytelling option, he said.
“We could have done dramatic reenactments,” Hurst said. “But we felt like animation is becoming something that people are much more interested in, in terms of its use in documentaries.”
In any discussion of immigration in America, the policies of former president Donald Trump — who imposed a travel ban on Muslims and promised to build a wall on the southern border — tend to come up. Initially, Trump’s anti-immigrant stance wasn’t addressed in the documentary because it might detract from the focus on Garden City.
But ultimately, Hurst changed his mind: “At one point, my editor said, ‘Trump isn’t Lord Voldemort. We can say his name, and the film won’t become about him.’”
Perhaps the film’s most interesting moment involves a white couple who had moved to Garden City from Great Bend, Kansas. The wife admits that she had been concerned about the city’s immigrant population — but soon realized that her fears were groundless. Her husband agrees.
“We went to Garden City at least two dozen times over a three-year period,” Hurst said. “And we sort of set up camp in a coffee shop. That’s how we met that couple and asked if they’d like to be interviewed. It turned out pretty great, because they were really frank and honest.”