Call Me Kuchu (2012)
Directed by Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Thursday, June 28 at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival
In your mind's eye, imagine a digital video of a crowd of smiling, cheering, happy African men giving each other hugs, backslaps, thumbs-up and high fives, dancing, swaying to music, applauding one another. Not a far reach? Now envision that there is a furrowed American onstage, flanked by two stocky black interpreters, screaming: "The blood of Jesus must wash this land!" In Uganda—an overwhelmingly Christian nation, as visiting preacher-lunatic Lou Engle points out in this snippet from Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall's Call Me Kuchu—LGBTI issues are perhaps stickier than they've been anywhere on the planet since... well, ever. Rolling Stone, a popular big-city tabloid, regularly outs people in its pages; in one scene, an editor grins sweetly and says of one victim, "Even if we got (the photo) from Facebook, it would still be his picture. We shall ignore the right of privacy in the interest of the public."
It's a pretty miserable situation, exploding in international visibility but steadily worsening thanks to a homophobic majority, and a government who turn rights activist into scapegoats for each and every threat to Uganda. This neo-Ataturkist idea of "stability" at any cost has created problems in Rwandan and Kenyan civil society too, but a fair share of Kuchu centers around the efforts—particularly of David Kato Kisule, Uganda's first openly gay man—to combat something even more insidious, the government's conflation of gays with terrorist sympathizers. (It continues: last week, the Ugandan government banned 38 gay rights NGOs as "channels through which monies are channeled to recruit" homosexuals; an activist conference in February was shut down on the grounds that "You cannot allow terrorists to organise to destroy your country.")
Factor in the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which makes any homosexual contact illegal and accuses participants of willfully spreading HIV. If passed, human rights activists argue, the bill will discourage testing in a country with a going HIV-positive rate of 5%; suddenly the nastiest of LGBT rights struggles in the US today look comparatively sanguine. Onscreen, Kato appears world-weary yet somehow boundlessly optimistic, with a roguish streak to boot, striding through this unfriendly terrain mostly anonymously, negotiating with tepid attorneys and pointing out the government's hypocrisies. The postponement of the bill in 2009 (it's still pending) was a major policy victory for the tiny activist community, and Fairfax-Wright and Zouhali-Worrall are careful to delineate the non-negotiable blurring of personal and political lives for these men and women.
In January 2011, Kato was murdered—just after successfully litigating against Rolling Stone, he being one of the hundred publicly outed by the paper. (Their pictures appeared with names, addresses, and the headline "Hang them!") Filming at his funeral, the filmmakers are quick to join in the outpouring of sadness—but quicker still to pick up the counter-protest that materializes and, ultimately, the unflinching resolve, down to the minute, of those he leaves behind. It's a solitary path facing them: one lesbian activist recalls, "They were saying I'm very, very stubborn, and I love men so much, because I was playing with boys all the time. Boys are my thing, I love playing with boys, I do boys' things. So that's how it happened that nobody ever believed me, and that's how I was raped."