This new film shows the uniquely complicated journey of one LGBTQ refugee seeking asylum in Canada
Someone Like Me is a nuanced portrait of asylum seekers and their sponsors — set during a pandemic
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Canada is currently the only country in the world that has a program specifically to help LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees. But as the exceptional new documentary Someone Like Me shows, the journey for both refugees and the Canadians who help settle them can be a turbulent and complicated process long after the refugee's arrival.
Directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Someone Like Me follows Drake, a vibrant 22-year-old gay man from Uganda who leaves everything behind to seek asylum in Vancouver. A group of queer strangers unite to help settle him through the banner of Rainbow Refugee, a non-profit that connects LGBTQ asylum claimants with sponsors. But in the months following his arrival, both Drake and members of Rainbow Refugee struggle with unexpected challenges — not least among them a global pandemic.
Adams and Horlor started working on the project in 2015, when they were talking with the National Film Board of Canada about creating something together.
"We were looking inward, and thinking about the queer community and looking for stories that tell a story about the queer community as it is now," Adams says. "That's where we started, and from there we were thinking about the time. It's 2015, Trump's [gaining] power, there's a lot of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric that's online."
They noticed that a lot of people were supporting organizations like Rainbow Refugee (in Vancouver) and Rainbow Railroad (in Toronto).
"We were seeing that there were groups of strangers that were coming together to raise money and help resettle people," Adams says. "So we started to research it, and we started talking to different groups and people who had been through the program, and we just thought it was a very interesting and unique story that exists in Canada."
The specific story they ended up focusing on was the 12 month-commitment a group of people at Rainbow Refugee made to help settle Drake in Vancouver. Adams and Horlor did not meet Drake or any of the folks at Rainbow Refugee beforehand; in fact, most of the people in the group coming together to help Drake had never met each other before filming either.
"That first meeting you see in the film, we are in that room in with cameras and that's the first day we met most of them," Horlor says. "With cameras everywhere. They had to get to know each other, and work together, with cameras there."
"And we had to get to know them," adds Adams. "We had to slowly begin to work our way into their lives and we really had to develop real friendships and real trust. They had to trust that we knew what we were doing and vice versa. We all just kind of moved together through it as a team."
Shortly after Drake arrived on the scene, roughly four months into filming, considerable conflicts arose in the group with respect to differing opinions on how to help him.
"We had spent all this time with all these people, and by the time the conflict happened and the group fell apart, we weren't sure what to do," Horlor says. "Even at that meeting we had to ask Rainbow Refugee, 'Do you want us to film this? Should we be filming this?' Because what you see in the film is a short clip of it. And they said, 'No matter what happens, this is such an important part of the process of people learning a newcomer's autonomy. Other groups have this problem, and it's such an important thing.' Everyone thinks it's going to be a big party and you're going to have fundraisers at a gay bar but no, no ... there's real stakes."
And then ... the pandemic hit. Which threw the lives of the film's subjects and filming itself into a kind of chaos so many of us now know too well. But everyone persisted, which ended up helping them get through the pandemic itself.
"It was tricky," Adams says. "We had spent so much time on this and we just wanted to keep going. So we were trying to come up with a bunch of different ideas, and the one that stuck was getting iPhones and bringing them to each of the subject's homes and dropping them off on their doorstep. It was like layered in plastic bags and sanitized, and they would pick it up. We'd put questions with them that they could answer and little scenes they might be able to film. We'd leave with it them for a week and then pick it up and you would sanitize the phone and offload the footage. It was always like a little treasure."
Adams says that the pandemic turned the process of the film — for both the subjects and the filmmakers — into an activity that really kept all of them going.
"Those were early days and it was tricky and nobody knew what was happening, so we were all talking and it totally brought us together," he says.
Ultimately, what resulted was a beautiful and unique film that shows Drake's journey and the journey of those at Rainbow Refugee — all in the middle of a major public health crisis. And it's a process everyone involve seems to now look back on fondly, including Adams and Horlor.
Horlor says that one of the best experiences during all of it was the time at the beginning of filming when they were getting to know Drake off-camera. "We'd take him out every day and show him the best places to see the city up the hills, show him all our favourite spots in town. We got to take him to Davie Street and see him see a gay neighbourhood for the first time and see two guys holding hands and watch him just freak out and get so excited. We got those moments with him, and we're so grateful for it."
Adams and Horlor are still very good friends with Drake, who affectionately calls them "Auntie Steve" and "Auntie Sean."
"He's really proud of all the work that's gone into this, and it's been a really rewarding experience," Adams says.
As we all get to watch the work that went into it in when Someone Like Me screens at various Canadian film festivals in the coming months, hopefully we get a better sense of how the process it depicts works — and how we might be able to help ourselves.
"As is mentioned in the film, only one out of 100 people who write [Rainbow Refugee] get help," Horlor says. "You just hear these stories and it's heartbreaking. This is why we're still volunteering with them after this because we have a responsibility."
"I hope people watch this and they have a better sense of empathy for refugees and asylum seekers. Their lives are not easy, and their problems aren't fixed when they arrive here. It's not like a magic wand and, 'Oh, you're in Canada, everything's fine now.'"
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.