America’s striking recent populist turn against immigration in a nation built on immigrants — and the deaf ear turned to the flight from poverty and persecution in the “land of opportunity” — are ironies not lost on “Unsettled.” This latest documentary by Tom Shepard (“Scout’s Honor,” “Whiz Kids”) follows four new arrivals who’ve each escaped possibly mortal peril in their native countries for being gay. They’ve landed in purported “gay mecca” San Francisco, yet even there, building a new life in an adopted nation is a precarious undertaking.
As their odysseys all started well before the beginning of the Trump administration, this is not an up-to-date (let alone comprehensive) treatment of the issue’s political complexities. But it does provide engrossing studies in human interest, as well as an empathetic look at the particular struggles of U.S. immigration in the new millennium. LGBTQ fests will queue up, with specialized and general nonfiction programmers in various formats following suit.
Though they differ in many other ways, all the principal, twentysomething subjects here left homelands in the wake of direct death threats or escalating, socially and/or government-approved violence against gays. In the town in which Subhi lived in Syria, Al-Queda established itself a few years back, wasting little time before it began to kidnap, torture and in some cases kill gay men. Even after fleeing to Turkey, he was threatened by an ex-friend who figured he’d “secure his place in heaven” by “honor killing” Subhi.
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Junior, a pastor’s son from the Congo, where homosexuality is officially legal but still a cultural taboo, endured repeated verbal and physical assaults, including while in police custody. Lesbian couple Cheyenne and Mari were “under siege” by neighbors in Angola, to the point where their dog was killed and one of their own mothers attempted to poison them.
Subhi and Junior petitioned for, and won, refugee status from the United Nations, with permission to permanently resettle in the U.S. — something one assumes would be harder to come by now, given the current White House stance toward refugees (as well as the way it perceives the U.N.). But the two women have only temporary visas; to stay on, they’ll need Homeland Security to grant them asylum status, though it turns down approximately two-thirds of such applicants.
Though there seem to be at least tentative happy endings to each of these stories, all endure significant hurdles. Faring best perhaps is the photogenic Subhi, who’s fortunate in getting a well-connected initial sponsor in the Bay Area, accesses good job opportunities and becomes a high-profile face of activism focused on fighting global LGBTQ persecution. Mari and Cheyenne have each other, a huge plus given the instability they must cope with otherwise.
Junior, whose androgynous looks continue to put him at risk in the dicey neighborhoods he’s often housed in, faces the toughest road. His employable skills do not appear high, his relationships (including with a couple of sugar daddies) don’t last, and he grudgingly admits to a sometime alcohol problem. During his first year alone, he moves 10 times, at one point living in a homeless shelter. All four newcomers have to deal with the Bay Area’s impossible housing market, in which far more privileged residents struggle to find and keep a berth. It’s worth noting that San Francisco’s reputation as a haven for gays, artists and other “fringe” communities was built on affordability — something that’s gone now, and may never return.
With a lot to pack into its 81-minute running time, “Unsettled” can deal only glancingly with issues such as culture shock and anti-gay rulings in the quartet’s home countries. Rather, the documentary’s focus lies more in capturing the general uncertainty of being a recent emigre under politicized circumstances in a nation with its own fast-changing mood. (We glimpse newly installed President Trump bragging that he’ll make refugees from war-torn Syria “go back” to that country.) One can argue the fine points of immigration all day, but one simple truth is undeniable: If our protagonists had stayed “home,” they might well have been murdered by now, with no punitive consequences for their killers.
Though attractively shot and briskly edited, “Unsettled” doesn’t offer much of the familiar picture-postcard San Francisco. Indeed, the doc might take place in any U.S. city, since the subjects generally aren’t in a position economically or otherwise to revel in the most tourist-friendly aspects of their environment. They are, for the most part, just trying to survive, and on limited resources. (Cheyenne and Mari aren’t even allowed to work during a fair stretch of their wait for an asylum decision.) The fast-paced narrative may end on a note of hopefulness, but one senses that if these people, forced to start their lives over again from scratch ultimately do succeed, they’ll be bucking high odds.