Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright’s Ugandan LGBT rights doc “Call Me Kuchu” has been met with considerable accolades in its short span on the festival circuit.
Upon its world premiere at the Berlinale, the film won the Teddy Award for best LGBT documentary. Then last week, it made its North American debut at Hot Docs and ended up winning the prize for best international feature. Sure to be a staple on the film festival circuit for the next few months, the film takes on a pivotal international human rights issue: LGBT rights in Africa.
Specifically focused around LGBT people and activists in Uganda, “Call Me Kuchu” (gay and transgendered citizens are called “kuchus”) centers around the life and tragic death of David Kato, a veteran activist who spent years fighting against his country’s insanely homophobic society. Among other terrifying things, an anti-homosexuality bill proposing death for HIV-positive gay men is introduced and Kato is one of the few brave enough to try and stop it. Unfortunately, after courageously changing the face of LGBT rights in the country, Kato was brutually murdered early last year.
Indiewire caught up with Zouhali-Worral and Fairfax Wright ahead of their Hot Docs premiere. Canonizing Kato’s life and shedding light on the remarkable efforts of people like him, their first film as feature directors is a powerful and important one that should not be missed.
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How did each of you get into filmmaking?
Katherine Fairfax Wright: In college, I studied anthropology and film, so for me documentary is a natural intersection of the two. I was the type of student who was really keen to think about a lot of things from a lot of angles, but perhaps not to the degree that would require one to hyper-focus on a single discipline or vocational niche. So filmmaking allows to me to pursue my myriad interests concurrently, to consider complex geo-political issues, questions of logic and of humanity, but with a creative mindset and output. A character-driven documentary such as “Call Me Kuchu” also enables me to explore a situation on a nuanced individual level from the point of view of a select few, but then to share that intimacy on a macro level with countless viewers and points of view—and I find that a really fascinating dynamic to take part in.
In terms of developing a skill set, my undergraduate studies were mostly film theory not practice, so as a supplement to that I began interning on a couple of film productions, then associate producing, then producing, set photography, and various other roles. But this is my first film in this capacity—as co-director, director of photography, and editor.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: Before “Call Me Kuchu,” I was working as a print and video journalist, reporting from the U.S., China and India for CNN.com and other publications. After a couple of years of freelancing, I started to feel creatively stifled by short-form journalism and having worked for a couple of production companies as a documentary researcher, I soon realized that the intimate, creative and in-depth nature of storytelling in documentary film was what I was yearning for. That was around the same time that I first heard 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 I started speaking with activists in the region, and shared my research with Katy, who had also been closely following the situation there. From there we decided to make a film.
What was the genesis of “Call Me Kuchu” as a project? What drew you to the material?
Katherine Fairfax Wright: We had both read about the tabling of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in October 2009, and we were increasingly disturbed by its implications. But Victor Mukasa’s case had also intrigued us, because it showed that while the country’s sodomy laws were still routinely enforced, and even harsher laws were being considered, the country’s judicial system was independent enough to allow LGBT people, or “kuchus,” to reclaim their constitutional rights. We also soon learned that there was an increasingly organized LGBT community in Uganda that was fighting state-sanctioned homophobia through the courts and other means. Within just a couple of weeks, we found ourselves on a plane bound for Kampala.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: David was the first person we met up with after we arrived in Uganda. We had to find 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.”
What do you hope people take from it?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: “Call Me Kuchu” tells the story of the last year in the life of David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man, up until his brutal murder in early 2011. We followed David over the course of a year as he worked to combat both an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that proposed a death penalty for gay men, and a gay-bashing tabloid newspaper that was outing members of the LGBT community with vicious fervor.
Of course, David’s brutal murder changed our motivations for working on the film to some extent. While we had always been keen to get the story of Kampala’s kuchus out into the world, that sentiment became far more urgent and personal when David died. We had essentially documented the entire last year of his life, and since his life was cut short, we had been filming during a time when he was at the pinnacle of his activism, when his philosophies and oration were most concrete and well-formulated, and when his voice and understanding of the complexity of the scenario was strongest. Therefore, both of us felt the responsibility to honor his life by making the best film we could, and ensuring that it has as broad of a reach as possible.
Katherine Fairfax Wright: Since his murder, David has been mythologized as a courageous and passionate human rights activist — which is exactly what he was. However, over the time that we spent filming with him, we also got to know a man who was charismatic yet vulnerable, sharp witted, and often afraid to sleep alone. As is true of the heroes of any movement, some of these character and situational subtleties have been overshadowed by the broad strokes of his accomplishments. Our hope is that “Call Me Kuchu,” as a long-format character study, will help supplement the canonized David Kato, and ensure that people understand that he was a normal man who went to astounding lengths to liberate Uganda’s LGBT community.
We also hope our audiences will take away a fresh understanding of Kampala’s kuchus and what they’ve achieved as a community. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill has received plenty of coverage from the international news media, however, in most cases the dominant narrative is that of victimization. While the LGBT community certainly suffers under Uganda’s harsh state-sanctioned homophobia, many of the kuchus we met were not only victims. David and his fellow activists worked hard to change their own fate through every means possible: the Ugandan courts, the United Nations, the international news media. There is a reason why everyone is talking about this issue, and it’s because the kuchus have worked relentlessly to push their movement forward. As a result, “Call Me Kuchu” is a nuanced story of empowerment as much as of persecution.
The access you got for the film is quite remarkable? How did you manage that?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: As we said, David was among the first people we were in contact with when we started researching the film in 2009, and it was he who introduced us to the kuchu community, a gesture that proved to be a crucial step towards gaining the community’s trust. From there, we took careful measures to approach everyone respectfully, and explained exactly what we were trying to do. We also tried to make clear to them that we wanted to document their stories well beyond the sound bites they were accustomed to providing to journalists. We really had to convince them we were in it for the long run, that we wanted to be around for hours on end as they moved house, had meetings, watched TV, ate dinner, etc. There were definitely people who chose not to be filmed, and we respected their wishes of course. But those who decided to let us into their lives did so because they wanted to be involved in a project that would get their stories out, and we were surprised at the intimacy that engendered. In many cases, it seemed that those members of the LGBT community were looking for an outlet through which to share their individual experiences.
What were some other challenges? This must have been an emotionally stirring process, to say the least.
Katherine Fairfax Wright: Most definitely, and by far the hardest moments for us were in the weeks immediately after David was killed. One of the most difficult moments to film came when we visited David’s mother with Naome, David’s close friend and fellow activist, and Bishop Senyonjo, a retired bishop and staunch supporter of the LGBT community. We had spent time with David’s mother before so she was comfortable with us filming, but it was nonetheless a very tough experience. The pain of her loss was so raw, and our memories of David so fresh, that we were both sobbing as we tried to operate the cameras and sound equipment. It was moments like these that forced us more than ever to ask ourselves what exactly we wanted to achieve with the film and how we should go about it.
What do you think is the legacy of David’s story? Where do you think the narrative regarding LGBT rights in Uganda is heading?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: The power of David’s story lies in his relentless dedication to inculcate LGBT rights into the status quo in Uganda, and to change the situation for the kuchu community. He was willing to do interviews with Ugandan television when few others dared, to approach politicians who had made their views clear, and to file lawsuits against powerful gay-bashing newspapers in Uganda’s High Court. His legacy does live on: in fact, his memory has galvanized Kampala’s kuchus to redouble their efforts to repeal Uganda’s sodomy laws. In August last year, five months after David’s murder, the LGBT community launched the “Hate No More” campaign to educate the Ugandan population on LGBT rights. At the press conference, members of the LGBT community openly addressed the audience and the news media to describe the persecution they have suffered.
But as the LGBT activist community becomes stronger and more visible, so too do its opponents. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill that failed to pass last year, in part because of David’s work, has now been retabled in Uganda’s Parliament, and just a few weeks ago, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity shut down an LGBT activist meeting in Kampala. Needless to say, it’s still a very unstable time in Uganda for the kuchu community.