Doc Stars of the Month: Cheyenne Adriano and Mari Timans, 'Unsettled'
Taking Best Documentary Feature Film at last year's Outfest, Tom Shepard's Unsettled, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, adheres to every fraught definition of its title. Debuting on WORLD Channel on June 28 (and available for streaming on WorldChannel.org through July 12), the film follows four newly arrived LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers—Subhi, a gay man from Syria; Junior, a gender-nonconforming gay man from the DRC; and Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola. Over several years, Shepard's camera captures this diverse foursome as they all figure out how to navigate life on these increasingly hostile shores—and in the process learn the true price of American freedom.
So for this Pride "Doc Star of the Month," Documentary is honored to spotlight two brave LGBTQ asylum seekers, Cheyenne Adriano and Mari Timans, who traded horrific threats on their lives for a more mundane form of US insecurity.
DOCUMENTARY: So how did you first meet Tom and his crew—and why decide to get involved in the project?
CHEYENNE ADRIANO and MARI TIMANS: We met Tom through a friend of ours, Melanie Nathan. We decided to share our story with the intent of educating Americans—and the world—about what immigrants go through to settle in a foreign country. Also, to educate Americans on the difference between being an asylum seeker and a refugee. We had no help from the government, compared with Junior and Subhi, who are refugees. We had to work things out on our own, and with the help of good friends and people we met here.
The majority of Americans still hold the false theory that immigrants are here to steal their jobs. In reality it's us the foreigners who end up doing the work, the jobs, that you don't want to do. It's also time that people realize that, regardless of what we were going through, we had a good life back in our country. We had our business, we were financially stable, and we went to college as well.
It's very disturbing that people still have a completely different idea of what Africa is. This country has a lot of resources to do research, etc. And yet you still get people here in America asking us if we used to see giraffes running in the streets, if we had exotic animals in our backyard. We've never even seen a lion in our entire lives! This is a huge problem in America. This lack of information, and the choice of living in ignorance. It's a must that we all educate ourselves and learn from each other. So we sincerely hope that this film will open people's eyes, educate, and inspire people.
D: Were you worried about any potential fallout from going public with your story—both for yourselves, and perhaps even for your families back in Angola? And was anything off-limits to the camera as a result?
CA and MT: Yes. We were always concerned about affecting our families in any way with this film. Part of Cheyenne's family is well known in Luanda, Brazil and Portugal. And having small siblings was a huge weight on our shoulders with going public. But it's something we had to do.
A lot of times we did not feel comfortable filming, putting our lives out there for the world to see. Having to rewind our memories and go through everything all over again. It was not easy to show our vulnerability to the camera. It’s never easy—unless you are an actor.
D: Were either of you politically active in Angola, or did you experience persecution solely on the basis of your sexuality?
CA and MT: Cheyenne's family is involved in politics, and Mari's father was in the military. Being the "gays in the family" and getting involved in politics was not an option—and definitely not a good idea. Not at that time.
D: For a refugee to flee their country, they must first have the financial means to escape. And resettling in a major US city is even more expensive—which I believe is why you ultimately left the Bay Area. So how has money, or lack thereof, played a role in your own immigrant experience? And do you worry about the many endangered LGBTQ folks too impoverished to get out?
CA and MT: Money, and the lack of money, have played a huge role in our process of settling down in America. After using all of our savings to escape our country, we had to start over in a country we had never been to before. It was a hustle. It took us years to be able to afford a place of our own here. The cost of living in the Bay Area is insane.
Mari was working for a well-known tech company, and Cheyenne was working for Facebook— and still the money was never enough. We still had to share houses [with other people], which most of the time led to terrible experiences. We both wanted a place of our own. So after doing a lot of research, we decided to move from the Bay Area to Las Vegas.
It's also important that people know that we are not refugees. We were asylum seekers. This is also one of the main reasons Unsettled had to be done. For people to educate themselves and understand the difference between the two. Asylum seekers are on their own. Refugees have the help of governments and NGOs. They have financial assistance plus housing. We had to work everything out on our own, and with the help of friends. Two women alone—and we made it happen.
It's painful to know that a lot of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are still in danger and trying to escape from their own countries, families and so-called friends. Regrettably, this is a global issue. Most of them have to hide their true selves to save their own lives. Can you imagine living your whole life pretending to be someone you are not so you can save your life? It’s the ultimate soul suicide.
D: So what has life been like for you in America since filming wrapped last year?
CA and MT: A lot has changed since the documentary wrapped, though both of us are still working in the tech industry. We've made a few changes in our lives that have been so beneficial, both physically and spiritually. We have transitioned into more intentional and vegan living. We've been more in contact with nature, and more in sync with ourselves individually and together, loving each other more than ever, supporting and building each other up every day.
And we are both still working on music. Cheyenne—aka KingCyborg—has recently released a new song that is available on all platforms.
And we now live in the suburbs of Las Vegas. We are enjoying this new journey. This is home for now.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.