Hot Docs Festival review: Someone Like Me (Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor)

Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor’s Someone Like Me is a film about immigration, and why in more and more complex societies and political organizations this topic seems to keep on changing into something new, never possible to address as a whole. There is no simple solution, not anymore; there is always a new variable. In Someone Like Me the variable is homosexuality, and how even after the horrible conditions in which some queer people live and the persecution they face has reached the mainstream media, Canada is still the only country in the world with a specific asylum policy for LGBTQ people. Regardless of the fact that there are still places where homosexuality is punishable by death, like Qatar and Iran; but also the conservative turn in the heart of the European Union and the rise of crimes against queer people in Poland, Hungary, Russia, to name only a few. As I write this review, I read about the death of a gay Latvian man this week who was lit on fire in a homophobic attack. And once again in the news we read about how “the crime took the nation by surprise,” when the very idea of a hate crime being still a ‘surprise’ for someone is part of the problem.

So maybe the question of dealing with trauma, in fiction or documentaries, in film or literature, becomes an ethical one: how to approach these themes without removing the agency from the ones forced to deal with them? How important is it to center such stories on their narratives and not on how they might be perceived from the outside? Someone Like Me departs from an interesting and important perspective: the story of a gay Ugandan refugee as he, now in Canada, attempts to begin his life away from the ones he loves, and how immigration, race, and homophobia intersect one another. But it fails when it puts side by side the story of the man forced to flee and the eleven Canadian people who, through the work of an organization to help queer refugees, got together to aid him in his escape.

As aforementioned, there is no simple solution to the problems shown in the documentary, immigration above all things; so it is interesting to see how hard and bureaucratic the process of selecting someone to be granted the status of refugee is, and the ensuing support this person will eventually need. Adams and Horlor know that, so it makes sense that we only get to know Drake once he arrives in Canada, for this is the way that the people who will help him will face the situation, given that up until that point he was unknown to them. Problems start when Drake begins to show difficulty in settling in Canada. He does not have a job, he does not know anyone, and above all things he was forced to leave his home behind; it was never his original plan. Despite the difficulties, Drake had a life before Canada. On top of that, in Canada, he may feel safe to be out as a gay man, but he suffers from racism, something that he didn’t have to face back home.

Someone Like Me focuses on too many things at once. After a brief exposition of Drake’s complex situation, the audience is presented with the problems within his support group, like how some people are concerned about the way he is drinking and smoking pot – even though it is legal in Canada – or how he should be grateful and show his gratitude. Nevertheless we barely ever see Drake’s reaction to any of this.

Furthermore, even had the reason behind such dual structure been to highlight the absurdity of the situation, this strategy fails because the narrative focus is shifted constantly. Besides Drake’s and the group’s narratives, we also follow the story of a Canadian trans man as he gets his top surgery amidst all the trouble with Drake’s group. In the end even the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a part of the film. What began as a possible commentary on how poorly even people who consider themselves liberal or progressive may deal with immigration, now ends with, for example, the reason given for the support group dispersing not being that, but the isolation and social distancing needed in this pandemic.

What feels off in this scenario is that neither story is actually properly told, neither Drake’s nor the group’s. The problem is that it is easier for us, as the audience, to fill the blanks and get the bigger picture of the support group’s narrative because it tends to be closer to our own; for one needs to be in Drake’s shoes to understand him, and not many have had the luck to escape what he and others escaped from.