Tom Shepard admits he felt a bit out of place moving from Colorado Springs to San Francisco for college. “I grew up in a very conservative town, and the right-wing Christian base was headquartered there for many years when I was a kid,” he says.
But whatever sense of culture shock he felt venturing from his sheltered childhood in Colorado to life in the coastal queer mecca was nothing compared to the urgency and disorientation experienced by the four LGBTQ refugees profiled in the filmmaker’s informative and absorbing documentary Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America.
Screening Thursday, Feb. 27 as the monthly selection for Reel Affirmations’ Xtra film series, Unsettled sprang from Shepard’s work volunteering for Jewish Family and Community Services, a refugee resettlement organization in the Bay Area.
“I was very curious about what was going on there, and thought it might be great to start filming,” he says. “They were like, ‘That’s really nice, but absolutely not. Most of our clients are trauma survivors, if not torture survivors, and to put cameras in front of them is just way too delicate. But we could use volunteers if you want to come volunteer for us.’ That was how I got pulled in, and then started meeting people on my own.”
Shepard got connected to refugees Subhi, from Syria, and Junior, from the Congo, whose wildly divergent immigrant journeys, covered in the film, share unfortunate similarities. Both lived under the constant threat of violence and harassment in their home countries — which was also the case for the film’s other subjects, lesbian couple Mari and Cheyenne.
“It’s hard for gay men, but for women in some of these countries, it’s impossible to leave,” says Shepard. “And for these women to have created this loving relationship for the time that they did, in Angola, then to have the wherewithal to get out, I was just sort of bowled over.”
Mari and Cheyenne’s inspiring devotion to each other comes across powerfully in the film. “They were actually quite successful back in Angola. Cheyenne had a hip-hop group. Mari was on an American Idol-like show, so she was known in her country,” says Shepard.
“It’s not that story of, ‘Oh, everything in America is better.’ They actually had really good lives. Their sexual orientation and their relationship made it impossible for them to continue what was already pretty successful. For me, it was really important to humanize who these people were, not just as people who had experienced persecution or had trauma — that they were musicians, that they were law students, that they were writers. That to me felt like a way for a broad audience to relate to them, not just as refugees, or as migrants, or as immigrants.”
Unsettled screens next Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Tickets are $14. Visit www.thedccenter.org/events/unsettled.