Shrieks of shameless laughter ring out at an inaugural drag-queen pageant. Equally enthusiastic Evangelicals holler urgent lectures in an American-tinged cadence, their Ugandan counterparts translating in perfect time. The loudly colored local tabloid encourages readers to “hang them,” while a cluster of close friends and family gather in secret to celebrate the anniversary of a love deemed ungodly, unnatural and illegal.
These are the events that unfold in Call Me Kuchu, a documentary spotlighting a group of gay and lesbian Ugandan activists as they battle a series of stigmas and legal restrictions rooted in colonial-era laws that outlaw their identities and sexual lifestyles.
The Anti-Homosexuality bill — tabled in 2009 and 2012 — which aims to slap repeat gay “offenders” with the death penalty speaks volumes. However, in Kuchu, filmmakers Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright decided to tell stories of gay activists, instead of focusing on statistics and reports on Uganda’s intolerance.
"If people want to find out about this issue, they can find out a lot of facts and figures online,” Wright told BET.com on a recent phone call. “I think what's harder to find is really the heart and soul of the people involved in the issue. It brings humanity to the issue in a very visceral way."
Throughout the film, we are introduced to the late activist David Kato — the first gay man to come out publicly in Uganda — and his cohort of fellow “kuchus,” or queers: Naome, an affectionate, closeted lesbian and mother of two; Longjones, a social butterfly who found his calling in health advocacy; Stosh, a young, HIV-positive lesbian and rape survivor with an unwavering stance on being true to herself; and Bishop Senyonjo, a local religious leader and LGBT counselor whose tolerance led to his being ex-communicated.
Viewers are taken into the tense trial rooms in the Ugandan High Court, where Kato successfully sues a small, local tabloid paper, Rolling Stone, for violating his and others’ privacy by outing them in sensational features.
Negative interactions with outside media and filmmakers in the past made the Ugandan LGBT community skeptical of the documentary filmmakers initially. Security was also a major concern for most. Yet with Kato on board, Wright and Zouhall-Worrall were given instant credibility and welcomed by the community.
"They became part of our daily lives and part of the Struggle in Uganda," said Longjones, 40, in a recent email interview. “I thought it was an opportunity to tell the world the reality, [rather] than pretend to be living what isn't right. To have our stories and share our experiences."
Zouhall-Worrall and Wright had been inspired to document the LGBT community in Uganda after learning about activists like Kato and Victor Mukasa, whose audacity to defy the status quo made international headlines. Yet, they did not foresee having to decide between featuring Kato's funeral and that of another deceased LGBT community member in post-production. When their leading man was found bludgeoned to death at his home, the filmmakers — having just arrived to New York a few weeks earlier — had about 48 hours to repack and return to Uganda.
"That pretty much meant we had to stop mourning," Zouhall-Worrall recalled. "We didn't really stop to absorb what happened until much later."
Human rights groups have condemned the Ugandan government's treatment of their LGBT community. The Anti-Homosexuality bill has also sparked conversation on a global political stage as well, attracting supporters from abroad. President Obama has taken a verbal stance against the bill, which he called "odious," and the persecution of LGBT community in Uganda, while U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to withhold aid from the country.
Foreign aid plays a significant role in Ugandan infrastructure, yet many officials have taken offense to being advised on the matter, claiming they would not listen to patronizing lectures from the West. American Evangelical activists like Stephen Langa, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge have also been criticized for inspiring the Anti-Homosexuality bill through their series of talks in Uganda on the "gay agenda for world domination." In this instance, the filmmakers Zouhall-Worrall and Wright take care to display the double-edged influence that the United States has on the LGBT community in Uganda.
The documentary has been praised by film critics and audiences. And the film is slated for select theatrical releases in New York and California this month.
In an ideal world, Zouhall-Worrall and Wright would like each audience member to walk away with one thing: the understanding that LGBT rights issues are essentially human rights issues.
“The best way to prove that they are human beings is by showing them as just that,” said Wright.
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(Photo: Courtesy of Cinedigm)