Recently racking up awards from the Berlin Film Festival to Toronto’s Hot Docs, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s “Call Me Kuchu,” which follows a group of Ugandan LGBTI activists in Kampala (led by the recently murdered David Kato, the kuchus’ – Ugandan slang for queers – answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.), is one of those rare docs that manages to enlighten, uplift and enrage in equal doses. It’s a sweeping portrait not just of the heroic gays and lesbians who often literally put themselves in the line of fire each and every day just to demand basic human rights, but also of a disturbingly self-righteous Ugandan society, which bans homosexuality and openly advocates for the death penalty for HIV-positive men. I got a chance to speak with the film’s own fearless co-directors as they were preparing for “Call Me Kuchu” to close the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater on June 28th.
Lauren Wissot: First off, could you discuss the genesis of the doc? I was pretty amazed by the intimate access granted to you by your subjects.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: We first became interested in following the situation in East Africa after hearing about Victor Mukasa, a Ugandan transgender man who in 2008 had won a landmark case against the country’s Attorney General in Uganda’s High Court. It was too late to make a film about Victor’s case alone, but it seemed that there was still a film to be made about the East African LGBT community, so we started speaking by phone with activists in the region, including David Kato. When the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in October 2009, we were both very disturbed by its implications and began to focus our research on Uganda.
As the Bill was tabled, Victor Mukasa’s case intrigued us all the more because it showed that while the country’s sodomy laws were enforced, and even harsher laws were being considered, the country’s judicial system was still independent enough to allow LGBT people, or “kuchus,” to reclaim their constitutional rights. We soon realized that there was an increasingly organized LGBT community in Uganda that was hard at work fighting state-sanctioned homophobia through the courts and other means. A few weeks later, we found ourselves on a plane bound for Kampala.
Katherine Fairfax Wright: David was the first person we met up with after we arrived in Uganda. We had to meet him in the restaurant of a specific hotel – the only place he felt safe in the city center. He reeled off names and numbers, and introduced us to various people in the kuchu community, so initially he was somewhat of a fixer to us. But as we spent more time with him, we were increasingly intrigued by his fierce intelligence and passion, and realized that he was one of the most outspoken activists in the community. It soon became clear that he was the protagonist of “Call Me Kuchu.”
LW: While watching the film I kept thinking of the similarities to the U.S.’s own civil rights struggle in the 60s, with David Kato as Uganda’s Martin Luther King, Jr. figure. The managing editor of the Ugandan tabloid “Rolling Stone” reminded me of the unapologetic Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama – who spoke for a vast constituency that thought that blacks should never be allowed equal rights, that segregation was a southern right, and that their very way of life would be threatened if integration occurred. The creepy part is that it’s historically oppressed blacks that now are doing the oppressing of another minority in Uganda under similar pretenses. (The Israelis’ brutal crackdown on the Palestinians in Gaza seems unconscionable for the same reason.) But, of course, in the 60s the south had to be forced by the federal government to change, just like how the international community today must force Uganda to accept the kuchus. Were you conscious of particular historical parallels while you were filming?
MZW: Most definitely – and you’re right, that there are parallels with a number of human rights struggles that have gone on around the world over the last 60 or so years. But the most striking to us both was the parallel with the early days of the gay rights movement in America. The anti-gay rhetoric from that era is used almost verbatim in Uganda today: that homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they recruit children into homosexuality. And it’s not only historical. “Call Me Kuchu” also sheds light on the stark parallels with the situation for LGBT communities in the United States today, illustrating not only the role of American evangelicals in the now notorious Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but also what can transpire in a democracy when fundamental human rights are left up to a popular vote.
LW: Sadly, the most shocking thing to me was the fact that David Kato, the first Ugandan gay man to leave the closet, even lived as long as he did – past 40. So why are these out-and-proud activists still alive in a country that condones capital punishment for homosexuality? Is the “Rolling Stone” “hang ‘em” stance a fringe minority viewpoint itself?
MZW: The “Rolling Stone” paper’s “Hang Them” headline, published in 2010, came at a time when the common rhetoric about the LGBT community had become especially radical, and within a year of the introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which, amongst many other things, proposed a death sentence for HIV-positive gay men. Before that, the main forms of persecution were extreme – sodomy convictions that led to prison sentences, police harassment, popular discrimination in churches and workplaces, even beatings – but not as extreme as capital punishment or murder.
LW: Your doc briefly touches upon a fascinating paradox when it comes to Ugandans’ view of the west. On the one hand, the country’s leaders use the kuchus as a scapegoat, cast them as an “evil” brought by the west, in order to rally nationalist sentiment. On the other hand, it’s white evangelical Americans that draw big religious crowds, and are a major force behind Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. What challenges did you, as Americans (and women), face while filming there? What was the sentiment towards you?
KFW: Uganda has a relatively strong tradition of freedom of the press, and there are quite a lot of Western journalists working in Kampala, so filming in public wasn’t as much of a challenge as we had initially expected. Additionally, we weren’t seeking to expose any elicit business – activists on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about their stance, and for the most part seem keen to put it on record. The main challenge we had to deal with was the fact that clearly not everyone in the LGBT community is out, so we had to be very careful to make sure that anyone we filmed was comfortable appearing on camera. In some cases, that meant that we weren’t able to film with everyone we’d have liked to include in the documentary.
LW: One of the most frustrating aspects of the doc – and I’m especially curious about your take on this given that one of your subjects was murdered – is the painfully slow justice system, not just in corrupt African nations, but within the ICC as well. (Mugabe, for example, is notorious for his ability to brutalize white farmers with impunity while simultaneously stall the international court when they seek reprieve. For cinematic proof, see Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s also maddening “Mugabe and the White African.”) What is it like to shed light on a life-and-death issue, knowing that in all likelihood justice will come too late for those now crying for help?
KFW: In “Call Me Kuchu” we follow David and his fellow activists through a crucial, precedent-setting court case in Uganda’s High Court, which, even by US standards, was concluded very quickly – within about three months. What’s more, the judge ruled in favor of the LGBT activists, insisting that as citizens of Uganda they have constitutional rights, including a right to privacy. This isn’t the only time this has happened – Victor Mukasa, a transgender LGBT rights activist sued the Ugandan Attorney General for police harassment back in 2008 and won his case. And in April, Uganda’s kuchus filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Ethics & Integrity for violating their constitutional right to freedom of assembly. So based on what we’ve seen in Uganda so far, the justice system actually seems to be something the LGBT activists can rely on to ensure a certain amount of justice.