Aside from Russia and the American “Bible Belt,” few places in the world have seen such virulent debate (and hate) around the treatment of LGBT people than the East African country of Uganda. Like a nightmarish extension of the colonial battlefield that Africa has long been treated as in the West, the trials and tribulations of Uganda’s sexual minorities have become the focus of global media and political attention. In 2009 Uganda’s parliament started considering a bill that even Stephen Harper’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called “abhorrent.”
Known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, the proposed legislation would make being gay and HIV positive a criminal offense punishable by death and imprisonment, in addition to numerous new offenses for “aggravated homosexuality” and failing to report “known homosexuals” to police. Currently shelved, the bill hangs over Ugandan LGBTs like a suspended death warrant invoked by conservative religious leaders and the tabloid press. The homophobic furor would lead to the brutal death of prominent activist David Kato, in 2010.
Call me Kuchu, the multi award-winning documentary by US-based filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, tracks the small and resilient group of activists for SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) over almost two years, a process which involved numerous visits, and extended periods of living with one of the film’s participant subjects, Noame. Increasingly embedded in their participants’ lives, the filmmakers would submit testimony to immigration authorities about the risk of being an out queer woman in Uganda, which eventually allowed Naome to claim asylum in Sweden.
Already shown to much acclaim at numerous major film festivals – including Hot Docs and Image + Nation – the heart-rending feature will be screened twice in Montréal, at Cinema Politica on Feb 25 and at the Massimadi Festival of LGBT Afro-Caribbean Film on Wednesday, Feb 27 at Cinéma du Parc.
“The factors feeding into homophobia in Uganda are so complex,” Zouhali-Worrall tells me via Skype from her home in Brooklyn. “It does seem like evangelical leaders have done a lot to inspire it – religious leaders in the Catholic and Anglican Churches have fuelled it.” Souhali-Worrall cautions viewers not to draw conclusions or generalizations about “Africa” or the Global South from watching what her subjects live through in this lightening rod country. “People often want to talk about the situation in Uganda as if it’s a very different and separate type of persecution… While there are probably some aspects of the situation in Uganda that are unique, it seems more helpful to see what’s happening there as an extension of what’s going on all the time in the US, Canada, or Europe.”
For Fairfax Wright, who is based in Los Angeles, “there are so many parallels between homophobia in the US and elsewhere. Even the rhetoric, stretching back to the Harvey Milk days; it’s astounding. It’s the same phrases being thrown around, that [LGBT people] can’t reproduce and therefore they recruit… So many of the tensions at play and the tactics are so similar,” the documentarian says, evincing the journalistic objectivity that is as much a part of the film as the compassionate character treatment for which it has been praised.
“Right now the Anti-Homosexual Bill is brought up by parliamentarians as a political football. The idea of ‘homosexual terror’ is also a convenient way to distract people from more pressing issues in society,” she adds.
Behind the agit-prop and the harrowing political drama lies an elegy to Uganda’s gay rights hero, David Kato, who was beaten to death halfway through principal shooting in 2011. “We are consumed by these people’s story, perhaps even a little more than we would like to have been,” the documentarians admitted, reflecting on the intimacy with which they treated their film’s subjects, and their responsibility to promote the Ugandan LGBT cause. “Every time the film wins an award we try and remember that David isn’t there for that,” Worrall concludes, certain that the battle for gay rights in Uganda, and elsewhere, is far from over.
Call Me Kuchu @ Cinema Politica, Monday Feb. 25 7 p.m., Concordia University, Room H110, 1455 de Maisonneuve West
For more info: cinemapolitica.org/concordia
@ Festival Massimadi, Wednesday Feb 27, 6pm discussion (in French) on lesbians and HIV; Screening at 7pm, Cinema du Parc, 3575 av du Parc