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Unsettled: Seeking Refuge In America

by Rob Lester
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Sep 18, 2019
'Unsettled: Seeking Refuge In America'
'Unsettled: Seeking Refuge In America'  

Absorbing statistics and theories about a topic has impact, but putting a face on it makes things real, hits the heart, and hits home. The documentary "Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America" puts several human faces on something many would rather resist facing: Violence around the world and how America, so-called "Land of Opportunity," isn't always that for those who come seeking sanctuary.

Here are affecting profiles of four people who fled anti-gay hatred: Congo's burdened gender non-conformer; Angola's devoted lesbian couple; and a Syrian man whose charismatic and inspiring personality propel him from nervous fish out of water to role model. All come to San Francisco, but can't keep worries at bay. Director Tom Shephard, co-producing with Jen Gilomen, was inspired by his own volunteer work helping such folks. He shapes their backstories and post-arrival incidents with tremendous empathy, allowing co-existing fears and hopes and harsh realities. "Unsettled" is indeed, in a word, unsettling.

with tremedous empathy, allowing co-existing fears and hopes and harsh realities, "Unsettled" is indeed, in a word, unsettling.

Strikingly different personalities minimize redundancy, despite similarities in age, needs, goals, and experiences with rejection. Almost unblinking and uncompromisingly committed, "Unsettled" settles for understanding rather than standing on soapboxes, never feeling exploitative. Witnessing kind, generous souls aiding settlement and legal help is especially inspiring. Contrastingly, a brief clip of Donald Trump promising deportation is chilling. Needed facts and summaries of events are delivered via terse on-screen sentences, rather than risk voice-over narration, which might take on a scolding, alarmist, or bemoaning tone - or upstage fragile central figures when they speak (quite articulately or touchingly at a loss for words). Long-held, tight close-ups are the norm, and so much is told in the eyes.

The pace is decidedly non-rushed, occasionally risking tedium; snail-paced footage of mundane tasks - carrying suitcases, washing dishes, etc.- are unnecessary to humanize these very human people. I was also impatient when the camera lingered on rain dripping or pigeons fluttering. Why? It feels like trying too hard to give us time to absorb moments or just be dramatic. Likewise, adding background music is anti-climactic "arty" embellishment cheapening the nakedness and guts laid out.

Like random channel-surfing, frequent shifts in whose story's being told may feel frustratingly disjointed, but highlight worthwhile progress comparisons: Finding a free lawyer or testifying at the U.N.(!) versus moving ten times - including a homeless shelter stint - plus drinking and HIV issues. O.K., no more spoilers. "Unsettled" will open eyes -and make them tear up.

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at www.TalkinBroadway.com for almost 15 years.


Reeling 2019

This story is part of our special report titled "Reeling 2019." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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