Victoria-bred filmmaker Sean Horlor has Donald Trump to thank (or is it blame?) for his recent success at the largest documentary film festival in North America.
Someone Like Me, which the Vancouver-based Horlor, 40, co-wrote and co-directed with his partner, Steve J. Adams, snagged one of five Rogers Audience Award trophies and $10,000 in cash at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival on Sunday. The roots of the film about a group of LQBTQ Vancouverites who attempt to sponsor a queer refugee from Uganda date back to 2015, when Trump was positioning himself for a run at the U.S. presidency.
Horlor said it was the tone of Trump’s verbiage, and the resulting support from a hate-mongering segment of the U.S. population, that put Someone Like Me into motion. The couple felt compelled to do something after seeing the swell of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments on social media, and made contact with Rainbow Refugee, a Vancouver organization that connects queer asylum seekers facing persecution in their home countries with sponsors in Canada.
“I knew it had the makings of a film,” he said.
Though production on the National Film Board of Canada feature was slow going at first (shooting didn’t commence until 2019), when Someone Like Me premièred last week in Toronto it was with a profound sense of victory, Horlor said. “Trump is gone, but the film is still here.”
Audiences on both sides of the country have responded. The film is currently streaming on-demand at Vancouver’s Doxa documentary film festival, where it is in the running for two awards at the festival, including best Canadian documentary. Between the Vancouver and Toronto fests, it has been a run of momentous proportions for the underdog, DIY filmmakers. “For Steve and I, it has been so rewarding,” Horlor said.
“Out of all the awards you can get, an audience award is the most satisfying in many ways, because it means people watched your film and really liked it.”
The filmmakers followed two parallel journeys during the making of the film — that of Drake, a 22 year-old gay man from Uganda, and the group of strangers from Vancouver attempting to resettle him in Canada. The year-long journey produced a surprising number of emotional ups and downs, which the filmmakers draw out methodically over the course of the film. Someone Like Me is the filmmaking duo’s first feature film, but their storytelling ability carries it, and clearly struck a chord with audiences.
“We’ve had queer people tell us they have never seen a portrait of our community like this from Canada. And people who are newcomers to this country, asylum-seekers and refugees who came through the kind of program that we’re exploring in the film, wrote us saying thank you for making this film. It is inter-sectional, all the different ways we have been connecting with people.”
Horlor was born in Edmonton but raised in Victoria from an early age. He attended Claremont Secondary before moving on to the University of Victoria, from where he graduated in 2004 with a fine arts degree. He moved to Vancouver soon after and sold a reality show, Don’t Quit Your Gay Job, to Canada’s OUTtv in 2009.
Adams and Horlor, who is also an accomplished poet, have completed 20 projects together via their Nootka St. Film Company, including short films and web series. Among them is the recently released Dear Reader, a 10-part on-demand series on Knowledge Network about British Columbia authors, including Emily Carr and Patrick Lane, Horlor’s former professor at UVic. They also have a feature development deal in the works with CBC Documentary Channel to make a documentary feature, Satan Wants You, with shooting targeted for October.
The potential film, which looks at the human cost of Satanic cult conspiracies, has a prominent Victoria angle.
Horlor still has family on Vancouver Island, and the switch to digital programming during the pandemic has given his extended circle the opportunity to see his work in ways that were not possible one year ago. He’s hoping that trend continues, even when audiences return to theatres.
“One of the unexpected but really cool things for film audiences across the country is that anyone anywhere across Canada can watch these films,” Horlor said of his Doxa and Hot Docs entries. “Steve is from Fort St. James and people in his hometown of 2,000 people have been watching the film and writing us. That’s amazing.”
What: Someone Like Me
When: May 13-16
Tickets: $10 ($75 for a festival pass) from doxa2021.eventive.org