Junior Mayema, a gay refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who now lives in San Francisco is one of four Bay Area refugees profiled in the documentary "Unsettled." (Tom Shepard)
Junior Mayema, a gay refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who now lives in San Francisco is one of four Bay Area refugees profiled in the documentary "Unsettled." (Tom Shepard)

At East Bay Jewish film fest, ‘Unsettled’ shows humanity of four local gay refugees

Jews have been a fixture at public protests against the current administration’s harsh tactics to ban and deter immigrants. However, they have been particularly prominent in standing up against the cut in the number of refugees — about 70 percent in the last three years — allowed into the United States.

To some of these Jews, “never again” refers not only to the Nazi genocide but to the indifference and anti-Semitism of the U.S. and other countries toward the vulnerable innocents desperately trying to flee Europe in the 1930s.

To others, like the yarmulke-clad Jew at a New York rally who appears briefly in the middle of “Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America,” empathy derives from the simple fact that we’re all children of immigrants.

A rabbi might view the motivations of Jews like him in the tradition of Hillel’s “If I am only for myself, who am I?”

Local filmmaker Tom Shepard’s intimate and revealing 2019 documentary — which takes places mainly in the Bay Area — doesn’t center on Jewish characters but rather on two gay men, one from Syria, the other from Congo, and a lesbian couple from Angola who have fled death threats and attacks in their native countries.

Consequently, it’s something of a stretch to see “Unsettled” as a Jewish film — except for its inclusion in this year’s East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. It screens March 8 in Pleasant Hill.

East Bay resident Fred Hertz, an important figure in the film, will speak at the screening. Hertz was approached in 2010 by what is now called Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay to host a party in support of a new program assisting LGBT refugees in the Bay Area — which led to a further involvement that he eloquently described in a 2015 J. opinion piece (“You can’t help 4 million refugees, but you can help one”).

“Unsettled,” which was filmed largely in 2015, shows Hertz befriending Syrian refugee Subhi Nahas and helping him acclimate. The film doesn’t comment on the bond created between a U.S. Jew (Hertz) and Nahas (who describes his religious beliefs only as non-Muslim), preferring to make the larger point that human connection can occur between any two people. It’s just a matter of compassion and concern.

Tom Shepard, director of "Unsettled"
Tom Shepard, director of “Unsettled”

Nahas has the most unexpected and dizzying road of the four refugees whom “Unsettled” follows. A lawyer friend of Hertz’s brings him to the attention of then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who invites Nahas to speak to the assembly about his travails as a gay man in Syria.

From there, the photogenic Nahas is quickly embraced as a go-to interviewee (NPR and CNN head the list). He gets a flash-bulb hit of red-carpet celebrity when he receives an award at the gay-themed Logo network’s annual hullabaloo.

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Nahas finds that coming out publicly and internationally is liberating, and that having a platform is both validating and disorienting. Unfortunately, they are of little help in establishing a stable job and career path and hanging onto a good San Francisco apartment.

“Unsettled” is an important film because it conveys the day-to-day struggle of refugees, even in the open-minded and safe Bay Area. There’s an abundance of nonprofits and dedicated individuals here, but they can only do so much to help with jobs, housing, homesickness, family separation, insecurity, and the looming possibility of being denied asylum and/or permanent residency.

The documentary’s other major contribution is to remind viewers that homosexuality is illegal in 70 countries. Incredibly, in four countries it is permissible to kill gay men and lesbians.

Consequently, “Unsettled” isn’t a story of charity or even mercy, but of empathy, support and morality. Even if those aren’t exclusively Jewish values, the film makes Jewish viewers kvell just a little.

Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America

1:40 p.m. March 8 at Century 16, Pleasant Hill. 84 minutes, not rated.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.