During the course of a 20-year career, the documentaries of Colorado-based filmmaker Tom Shepard have been screened at more than 150 film festivals throughout the world, with four of his feature projects—“Scout’s Honor,” “Knocking,” “Whiz Kids,” and “The Grove”—airing nationally on PBS.
His latest work will make its way to PBS in 2020, but Los Angeles audiences can see it on July 22, when “Unsettled” has its Southern California premiere, as part of Outfest, July 18-28’s LGBTQ-themed film showcase.
Shot in an unobtrusive, commentary-free style, and a mode that invites compassion rather than imposing it, “Unsettled” follows four LGBTQ refugees fleeing their dangerously inhospitable native counties for the relative safety and security of San Francisco.
Syrian émigré Subhi has a very public coming out, when an invitation to speak at the United Nations makes him the face of the queer refugee movement. Angolan lesbians Cheyenne and Mari arrive on temporary student visas, then must navigate a bureaucracy fraught with potential deal-breakers. And Junior, a gender-nonconforming person from the Congo, deals with homelessness and heartbreak.
For Shepard, whos started research for the project in mid-2014 and completed the work just in time for its recent premiere at April’s San Francisco International Film Festival, “Unsettled” was inspired by the filmmaker’s feeling of “some complacency in the queer community,” he recalls. “This was in light of the push for Marriage Equality, and ultimately, the Supreme Court’s ruling on that, and just an appreciation for the dissonance of what’s happening in other parts of the world. I was looking at myself, and saying, ‘I read a lot about the Syrian crisis, but I don’t actually know the difference between refugees and asylum seekers.’ ”
Shepard began volunteering for Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay, “one of the big resettlement organizations. They got money, at that time, to start resettling LGBTQ refugees. They were pioneers of this work, so I approached them [about making a documentary].”
The organization was understandably reluctant, he recalls, given their clients “are all trauma survivors. Many of them have even been tortured, and it didn’t seem wise to put a camera in front of them as soon as they get here.” Six months into his volunteer work, Shepard had established a track record of showing “my approach, which is pretty gentle.”
Still, very few were willing to talk on camera, and share their stories publicly. Protecting their anonymity meant that as work on “Unsettled” began, “We couldn’t do any Kickstarter [or other such fundraising] campaigns that would show their faces.” A slow process of trust-building began, and yielded, through his coming to know Melanie Nathan, a refugee and asylum advocate with Marin County’s African Human Rights Coalition, the opportunity to work with Cheyenne and Mari. “When she found out they actually were able to get visas and flee to the U.S.,” Shepard recalls, “she said, ‘You’ve got to know about this story.’ ”
As for what Shepard hopes will happen with the stories “Unsettled” has to tell, he says, “We’re working with a number of organizations that work with refugees and, generally, LGBTs—in particular, Childrens Community Services and IRC (the International Rescue Committee)—and also, other religious organizations that have historically resettled refugees.” Ministering to the unique needs of LGBTQs, Shepard notes, is particularly challenging, in that, “The refugee model in this country is predicated on families. A family will flee a country and be plugged into members of their own diaspora. But LGBTQ refugees are at very high risk of isolation, because they don’t have those footholds when they come to the U.S.”
With money from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, Shepard’s “Unsettled” team, in partnership with various community organizations, will embark, this fall, on a “national impact campaign all over the country. We feel we can introduce “LGBTQ refugees [and the plight of refugees in general] to middle parts of the country, where we can do a screening, a panel, and find refugees being resettled in those communities, to make it very local. That’s our mission, before the public broadcast of the film—to be on the road and spark conversation. Given the toxic discourse coming from the Trump administration, where refugees are being maligned to support the president’s base, it feels like a yeasty moment to counter the inflammatory rhetoric.
In addition to telling the stories of young LGBTQs, Shepard’s Colorado Springs-based Youth Documentary Academy, which he founded, “has become the passion of my life right now. We work with young people from underrepresented backgrounds. There are many, many films about underserved communities, but when people form those backgrounds take the reigns and tell their own stories, that’s when we’re going to see change,” he says. Many of the Academy’s enrollees come from “first generation families,” Shepard notes, “and they make films about queer issues, teen suicide, mental health—social issues told through the lens of young people.
Asked for the current status of the four young LGBTQ refugees who share their stories via “Unsettled,” Shepard says Junior and Subhi, who were granted refugee status by the UN, were able to get green cards, while Cheyenne and Mari, who came here with temporary student visas, “had to adjudicate their case over three years—and that’s a tough row to hoe, even for these two women who have the wherewithal to cultivate this loving relationship. When you get to the U.S., you can’t work for about six months after the time you file the asylum claim. So you’re either forced to work under the table and jeopardize your status, or rely on the generosity of strangers.” The couple did find an attorney to help, and “have since moved to Las Vegas, where the cost of living is cheaper than San Francisco.”
Junior, Shepard notes, “was able to finally secure public housing after being on a waiting list, although he still struggles. When we premiered the film in San Francisco, he shared with the audience that he’s thinking of moving to Atlanta.” Subhi, Shepard says, worked as an Uber driver and a translator after having become “famous, rather quickly” when he testified before the UN Security Council, and “unwittingly became a poster boy for refugee rights.”
After two years of that notoriety, Shepard says, Subhi, like so many LGBTQ refugees who finally become “settled,” is “sort of exploring, ‘I want to live a normal life.’”
For more information, visit unsettled.film. NOTE: The Outfest screening of “Unsettled” is preceded by the eight-minute short, “Carlito Leaves Forever.” Directed by Quentin Lazzarotto, it tells the story of Carlito, a young man living in an indigenous village at the heart of the Amazon, who decides to leave and change his life.
Learn more at festival.outfest.org/2019/movies/unsettled