Hamptons Film Festival: Ugandan Gay Rights Doc Call Me Kuchu Proves The Struggle Continues
A fair amount of international media attention was given in 2011 to what was being called the Ugandan "Kill The Gays" bill, which would make homosexual activity punishable by death. Rachel Maddow covered it on her show, Hillary Clinton called the Ugandan President to condemn it, but it was sadly easy to file the story in your brain as yet another awful thing happening far away. In Call Me Kuchu, a deeply powerful new documentary, the plight and ferocious strength of gay Ugandans (who dub themselves "kuchus") is made personal, as the filmmakers follow several of the country's most notable gay activists in their struggle against discrimination as well as simply accepting themselves in a society deeply hostile to their existence.
Filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall got remarkable access to their subjects, many of whom were having their photographs published by local paper Rolling Stone under the title "Men of Shame," or who weren't even out of the closet to their parents. We're immersed in the small but tight-knit gay community of Kampala, but the film's central figures are David Kato, who founded the gay rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and a handful of his closest friends, including a lesbian who has gone into hiding after being threatened by her neighbors when a photo of her kissing her girlfriend was published in the paper.
The film jumps between the lives of David and his friends and the larger political system they're fighting against, from legislators in the national government proposing the "Kill the Gays" bill to preachers who give fiery sermons claiming children are being raped or "indoctrinated" into the homosexual lifestyle. Halfway through the film does someone compares the persecution of gays to the ethnic cleansing that took place in neighboring Rwanda, but the similarities are clear much sooner; Uganda is a deeply poor and deeply Christian nation, and gays and lesbians make for an appealing scapegoat, especially when many live in such fear that most Ugandans can probably easily claim they don't know any "homes" or "lesbos."
It's a very tricky thing for American filmmakers to travel to an African country and expose an issue there, with the risk of being patronizing or didactic at pretty much every turn. But Wright and Zouhali-Worrall allow the Ugandans to speak for themselves, eschewing narration or charts and graphs in order for David and Stosh and all the others to put a vibrant, personal face on the struggle for gay rights. WIth a few national and international news reports to add context, as well as interviews with the legislators and media figures who support the "Kill the Gays" bill, Call Me Kuchu has just enough scope to fully depict the issue, but never loses its tight, intimate focus on the courageous activists who the audience feels privileged to meet.
With gay marriage moving closer to the center of a national debate here in the United States, Call Me Kuchu is a powerful and eventually heartbreaking reminder that elsewhere in the world, we have much, much further to go. As the activists frequently remind each other throughout the film, "Aluta Continua." The struggle continues.
*I saw this film at the Hamptons International Film Festival, which I've been attending throughout the weekend. Many more reports to come!
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