Directors Katherine Fairfax Wright & Malika Zouhali-Worrall create a stunning portrait of Ugandan gay activist David Kato — credited as being the first man to come out in the nation of Uganda — with their documentary, Call Me Kuchu. Its plead for human decency in a country that has long flaunted the ugly scars left by Western colonization — religious indoctrination that has bred a government filled with hate and a people who demonize the minority — is but one of many compelling pieces to this documentary. Every focal point that should be covered is covered in the film. Wright and Zouhali-Worrall aren’t from the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmakers where every hot topic issue must be shoved down one’s throat to the point of suffocation. There isn’t a moment where an agenda is being fulfilled, or even sought after; rather, the pair of female directors sit back and let Kato and his fellow LGBT friends tell us their stories of the suffering, pain, and utter horror they face each day being proud “Kuchus” — the Ugandan term that codifies the LGBT community in the nation. You think it’s difficult being gay in America? You have absolutely no idea the amount of bigotry, hate, violence, and sheer loathing the “Kuchu’s” face from a nation that imbibes religious dictum as vigorously as water in the desert.
Drawn to investigate and document the spread of homophobia in Africa, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall soon become aware of the powerful East African figure who is attempting to derail the criminalization laws against homosexuality in Uganda. David Kato, the main political activist for the “Kuchu” community, soon becomes the liaison between the filmmakers and the “Kuchus.” Knowing that Kato was the sharp point at the end of a very long spear, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall felt it was important that he be the center of their film, and they were with him to capture both his daily life and politically-active one. The scenes of Kato doing ordinary, day-to-day things weigh even greater on one’s emotional state knowing that his end was not a peaceful one. Yes, three weeks into filming, where Kato had accomplished so much in such a short time — winning a libel case against a famous tabloid magazine being one of his most important moments of triumph — Kato was assassinated outside of his home, bludgeoned to death by a hammer. The death takes some by shock if you weren’t already aware of Kato, his gay rights activism in a land where “Kuchu’s” are literally seen as ants in a nest of tarantulas, or President Obama’s public condemnation of the murder in early 2011. Kato’s death didn’t stop the filmmakers from keeping the cameras rolling; instead they replicated Kato’s zest to keep on fighting.
Lest you think this film is all about Kato and deconstructing the legend who was every bit as ordinary as you or I, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall document the lives of several other members in the “Kuchu” community, as well as some on the opposite spectrum of the Ugandan homophobia crisis. Four other characters we meet who are also activists for “Kuchu” human rights in Uganda are Naome, Bishop Senyonjo, Stosh, and Longjones. Naome has one of the strongest resolves I’ve seen in a woman who has known nothing but bigotry her entire life. She serves as a listener to all, as someone who judges no one but is simply there to make sure humans respect, love, and treat one another with kindness. As a mother and a lesbian, Naome knows full well the challenges she faces in her life, much less in Uganda. Bishop Senyonjo is the one priest in all of Uganda who supports the “Kuchu’s,” because he sees his Christian God as one that does not condemn, judge, or define. To Senyonjo, all of God’s children must be equally loved. The Bishop was labeled a “Kuchu” himself — a fabrication made by Uganda’s Rolling Stone tabloid magazine — for defending the rights of these oppressed minorities. Other than Kato, I dare say there isn’t a braver man in all of Uganda who is still alive and fighting for human decency each day of his elderly life.
Stosh…wow, where do I even begin? Perhaps unbeknownst to even Wright and Zouhali-Worrall, there is nothing that can prepare you for Stosh’s story of living life as a lesbian in Uganda. I find it so ironic that the Ugandan government slanders the “Kuchu’s” for raping and luring in the youth, but they don’t seem to mind raping lesbians like Stosh as a means of straight-conversion. Even the most conservative of viewers will feel like crumbling to pieces after hearing Stosh’s tale of self-discovery in a nation that wants to seal up the “Kuchu” closet forever. Longjones, the last major “Kuchu” figure we meet, is the “Kuchu” queen of the Drag Queens, and flaunts his feminine wiles at night when he is around fellow “Kuchu” brothers and sisters. Longjones is a source of light and endearment for his community. He constantly brings them out of their slum, and gives them a slice of heavenly life to bask in for several evenings of the week. In fact, the “Kuchu” people themselves seem oddly the happiest of any group that is documented in Uganda. Uganda’s people are, for the most part, so obsessed with the “homosexual agenda” that they act like drones who unquestionably serve their homophobic government. Their lives seem to be fulfilled most when they can enact violence toward a “Kuchu” or cause them shame, like the aforementioned Rolling Stone tabloid magazine that sells the most copies when its cover story is titled, “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak.” This sounds an awful like our own trashy tabloid magazines who obsess over outing celebrities. It seems very conflicting to want to vanquish a community when they provide the largest source of entertainment, bringing in a wave of revenue for all the publication companies to profit from, no? Just like the Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany, the “Kuchus” are the scapegoats for all that is wrong in Ugandan society, and nothing would please the nation more than to eradicate them off of God’s “pure” soil.
Taking in all sides of the argument, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall interview two proponents of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that failed to pass in 2009. One of them is a young man who cannot stop laughing during the interview when talking about homosexuals. It’s clear he sees them as little more than dangerous clowns to scoff at, but he simply regurgitates the religious doctrine that was brainwashed into his neural system as a child. One almost feels sorry for not just this young man, but all the Ugandans who never fully moved on from the Christian indoctrination set forth by their former Western occupiers. While the West has found itself more liberal nowadays, their bigotry has remained alive in countries that were once former colonies. Naome appropriately calls it one of Uganda’s most tragic ironies.
The second proponent of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill who is interviewed is a reverend who acts as though he’s an endorsed celebrity that just likes to hear himself speak nonsense. He shouts to everyone who will listen about the dangers of homosexuality, their “recruitment” methods, and the need for the Ugandan people to defend themselves at all costs against the “Kuchus.” Wright and Zouhali-Worrall wisely do not interject, ask these two men questions, or give their own unfiltered opinions. They just let these champions of homophobia go on rant after rant, serving as mouthpieces for their quiet Parliament. I find it so fascinating that the Ugandan people are so blinded by their own human indecency that they are willing to do their government’s dirty work even when the government tries to retract its homophobic policies after members of the United Nations threaten to break their ties with Uganda. Through both interviews, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall are able to perfectly illuminate the way the Ugandan government uses its own people as proxies for their own intolerance.
In the end, this documentary pair of filmmakers use Kato’s activism story in Uganda as a stepping-stone to a greater fight that must be fought. Films like Bully and now Call Me Kuchu are meant to highlight a modern world that still reeks of bigotry and intolerance. Some of the words said in this film — “Gay rights are not human rights,” for one — will shock you to your core, but use them as fuel to educate others about the damage we do to ourselves as a human species when we go down this line of thinking. Documentary filmmakers like Wright and Zouhali-Worrall do so much by doing so little. Instead of directing the narrative or playing up the drama with staged situations, the pair of female directors simply listen. Letting the subjects do all the talking and acting without any directorial input is what makes their tragic stories all the more believable and difficult to swallow. A film such as this is precisely so riveting because it keeps things very simple by focusing on the issue at hand and documenting all sides without interjection. Call Me Kuchu is a perfect example of modern cinéma vérité: keeping things strictly unbiased and real by simply observing while the cameras remain rolling. It’s rare nowadays to witness this lost craft of film-making, but the young Katherine Fairfax Wright — who serves as co-director, cinematographer, and editor of this documentary — does it so marvelously without even the slightest hint of self-interest. Call Me Kuchu is perhaps the most important film you’re likely to see all year, and the first documentary of 2012 to capture my four-star rating. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing an important global issue like human intolerance be handled in such an honestly told, realistically unfolded way. If more documentaries were filmed like Call Me Kuchu, the genre could return to its roots of educating and mobilizing viewers instead of simply entertaining them.
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