In 2007, I traveled to South Africa to help film a documentary about community development and self-sufficiency in a township called Mamelodi. During the trip, I visited a hospice run by a South African woman, that provided care and shelter for those living with HIV/AIDS. That hospice also welcomed an American missionary to both assist and expand its cause. During filming, I recall being present at a church rally lead by the missionary. The pastor yelled into the microphone, jumped up and down, and exclaimed that he would be teaching the people of Mamelodi “a new song.” The church participants, both black and white, rejoiced, held hands, hugged, and swayed together as the pastor’s words took on a feverish pitch.
That feverish pitch, or air of mass belief that I experienced during the missionary rally is the same thread brought out in the documentary, Call Me Kuchu, where co-directors Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright examine religious fundamentalist fervor, much of it imported from abroad, and how it morphs into a kind of homophobic hysteria that both enables and fuels the Ugandan government to consider passing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make homosexuality punishable by death. Spanning several years, from the bill’s introduction in 2009, the documentary chronicles the work done by Ugandan LGBT activists and allies, most notably David Kato, to combat the proposed legislation.
The directors waste no time situating viewers into the center of this firestorm where a popular newspaper aptly titled Rolling Stone, prints headlines that read “Homos Exposed” along with a photo of a man laying down in his underwear. In one interview, the newspaper’s editor explains that they hire agents to infiltrate the LGBT community by pretending to be one of them, hanging out where they do, and taking pictures of them that are then printed in the paper. There are parallels here to the FBI-enacted COINTELPRO program in relation to the Black Panther Party and other so-called “insurgent” groups in the US. It’s both intriguing and disturbing to consider that same tactic at play in this context.
David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda, and one of the most vocal activists in the country, is seen battling this newspaper and its invasion of personal privacy and safety, in an important court case. The documentary provides an honest, sobering lens into his activism, as well as more intimate moments where he explains his process of coming out in South Africa, and his mother’s requests that he marry a woman soon. In one scene, Kato sits in the darkness outside of his home, speaking fast and almost rambling into the camera that he may be “losing his head” due to the constant threats present in his country. There is a certain fragility and humanity communicated here that makes the circumstances of Kato’s eventual murder even more heartbreaking.
Structurally, the documentary is one of extreme contrasts and juxtapositions, which counteract the divisive rhetoric used to support the Anti Homosexuality Bill. That structure also lends itself to a roller-coaster effect, hitting the audience on all sides. By the end of the film, a woman was crying in seat next to me. Juxtapositions are most potent when concerning the idea that youth are “recruited” into homosexuality. A scene of pastors and government officials supporting this view is followed with bold testimony of forced coercion. In one of the more searing interviews, a female to male trans-man Stosh, speaks of being the target of a corrective rape because a male saw him playing “too much” with girls. His words wash away the vitriol expressed in the former segment, and provide a human account of the real “recruitment” at work; one that brutalizes those that don’t submit to ideological violence and hatred.
That hatred is captured in numerous sequences of missionary revivals in which people submit to this mass mania. Those sequences make the more intimate, fun moments between the LGBT community worthwhile and bittersweet. A drag ball held at David’s home where activist Long Jones practices walking in platform heels, is a pure gem. Later, men dance and grind together, and a queen is crowned with a tiara.
In the end, this is not a documentary about “backward” African countries or a call for America to help save the people of Uganda. It is a film about Ugandan people trying to preserve human rights in the face of broad fundamentalism and homophobia, many of which didn’t originate in Uganda. What elevates the film from mere PSA or “save the Africans” status is the directors’ focus on the actual people working in the trenches, not the government officials, the American missionaries, or hateful pastors. We’ve heard enough of them on Fox News and CNN. Sure, their input is needed to help frame the discussion and it is weaved in nicely into the documentary’s narrative, but the real core of this work comes in David’s final year of life captured on film, in Stosh’s testimony and endurance, in the Bishop Senyonjo’s plan to build a church refuge for the LGBT community as he is banished from the Ugandan Anglican church, and in the overwhelming sense of life generated between these people in the wake such violence.
That alone makes it a memorable, important work that will hopefully serve as required viewing for continued conversation around human rights issues in Uganda and abroad, especially in light of the bill’s reintroduction into the Ugandan Parliament, where it again has a chance of being passed. This film reshapes that feverish pitch into a necessary, yet cinematic call for action.
Find out more about Call Me Kuchu on the film’s website HERE.