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Outfest’s ‘Unsettled’ charts difficult journey of LGBT refugees

Timely exploration of the impact of immigration policy on LGBT asylum seekers    

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‘Unsettled’ follows four LGBTQ refugees fleeing their dangerously inhospitable native counties for the relative safety and security of San Francisco.

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

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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