Although first making its debut at Hot Docs in 2012 where it went home with the award for Best International Feature, the documentary Call Me Kuchu has taken on an extra level of importance in light of recent events. Taking place in a country where the rights of the LGBT community have been trampled on in some of the most frightening ways, one can’t help but notice a parallel to what’s currently happening in Russia.
It’s a comparison that isn’t lost on the film’s directors, Katherine Fairfax Wright (who also shot and edited) and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (who also produces) as they phone in to talk about the film’s upcoming release this weekend at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Spending a year in the African nation of Uganda, Wright and Worrall document marginalized life for anyone who isn’t straight during a time when the country’s parliament was attempting to criminalize homosexuality to such an extreme that some cases could be punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Worrall (a journalist and filmmaker based in New York) and Wright (a photographer and film producer) constructed most of their film around the work of David Kato, the most openly gay man in Uganda and a tireless activist for equal rights. His efforts made him the target of constant threats and derision, including becoming the chief whipping boy for a local newspaper (somewhat ironically named Rolling Stone) that routinely states homosexuals as being akin to terrorists and pedophiles that need to be rounded up and hung in accordance with what some members of the clergy had been demanding. It was a volatile situation that ultimately led to David’s murder and an international spotlight being placed on the country in the wake of the tragedy.
Dork Shelf talked to Katherine and Malika about the genesis of the project, their surprise to see American fundamentalists latching onto the extreme Ugandan movement, how they dealt with two equally heavy parts of the filmmaking process, and their thoughts on the current state of Uganda and Russia.
Dork Shelf: How did you guys get in touch with David Kato and did the rest of your subjects throughout the film come from him or from previous research you had done before going in?
Malika Zouhali-Worrall: We were put in touch with David by other human rights activists that we worked with a lot in terms of researching the film. They put us in touch with David and a lot of other activists in the East African region. Through our initial phone conversations with David we realized that we probably wanted to focus on Uganda. We did speak with one other person who is in the film, Bishop Christopher Senyongo, who’s the Anglican bishop who supports the LGBT community there. We heard about him before we went to Uganda and spoke with him, as well, prior. But it’s interesting that when we got there, it was David who pretty much connected us with the rest of the LGBT community and he told us some of the stories and experiences that he thought were particularly important for outside of Uganda to hear about. He was the one who took us to the anniversary party that you see at the beginning of the film.
DS: Given that you’re coming from a journalistic background and you are going to Uganda where you can see what a publication like The Rolling Stone is trying to do, were you worried initially how your very presence in the country would be perceived by their media?
MZW: Like how we might be drawing attention to the issue by being there?
MZW: I think by the time we were going there a lot of news media coverage had already been drawing international attention. We knew we weren’t the first ones going, and we knew we wouldn’t be the only ones drawing attention to the issue. In some ways that lessened the responsibility a little bit, but what we wanted to do that was different was to focus on the individual people in their day to day lives rather than just on how terrible their persecution was. We were certainly always conscious of the fact that whatever we did there could be misunderstood or misused by publications like Rolling Stone. We were always trying to take as many precautions as we could to ensure that we minimized the potential impact of that. One key example of that was how before we had a long conversation with everybody, we made sure they understood what they were getting involved in. We wanted them all to know that their image and voice could be used anywhere.
DS: Do you think it helps that you guys were coming from outside of Uganda to get this film made and get the answers you ended up with? Do you think it would have been possible to make the same film from within Uganda to document both worlds equally?
Katherine Fairfax Wright: I think at the end of the day either perspective would have been valid. I think it’s that you would just end up with different films. One thing when (one of the subjects) Naome saw it was that she was surprised by how big it all was. She didn’t realizes how many different sides we were getting and how many different people were partaking in the issue from all different angles. I think that would have been harder for someone on the inside to do and really be able to speak with so many different people. But I don’t know, I think either film would have had something important to say, but I think that international context was something that was a little more pressing for us to indicate and have come across in the film. We’re familiar with the intended audience for our film, so I think to some degree we were a bit more cognisant than a local person would be as to how the film would play to, say, an Evangelical or even a run-of-the-mill American. There are a couple of instances where we ended up re-cutting scenes that we really liked based on how different people might react to them. But each individual comes in with their own set of concern, values, and things like that, and all those things regardless of who makes it would change the pitch of the film.
DS: Who was it harder to get to open up and talk about these issues on camera? It seems like a lot of members of the LGBT community in Uganda might be a bit shier to open up on camera thanks to religious and media perception, whereas the more fundamental and extreme anti-gay opposition to them might be a bit more vocal in this case?
MZW: Well, as with anything , it kind of varies. There were some people that we spoke with and we wanted to include their stories, but we ended up cutting them out because it was too dangerous for them for us to leave it in. We understood when some people couldn’t be involved, but there were other people in the community, including other activists, that we were surprised by just how much they opened up their lives to us and told us their stories. Within the LGBT community there was certainly a wide range of responses and different levels of access and engagement in terms of what they were willing to talk about with filmmakers. We ended up filming over the course of a year and a half, which made our relationships a lot stronger and made for a lot more access.
When it came to the anti-gay groups it was quite different. We talked to one anti-gay pastor who had done some media in the past. He had done some interviews internationally in the past, but by the time we had approached him to do the film, he was essentially being told very strongly by his American funders – he was Ugandan but he had American funders – that he should just stop talking to the international media. So when it came time to talk to him on camera he said he couldn’t say anything to us. Then you have someone like Giles (Muhame), the managing editor for Rolling Stone, just came down to having to pin him down within his own time table. He was incredibly easy to get and very willing to open up and be very clear about his opinions and make it known how proud he was of them.
DS: Were you surprised to see American evangelicals travelling to Uganda and latching onto this movement, and do you think they seemed cognisant of what was actually going on there or do you think it seemed more like a figurehead to them?
KFW: I think what probably surprised me most was just how overt they were with their message. It’s not that I didn’t think their views weren’t extreme, but I think they would have learned by now, especially with there being such a big stink going on in the US right now, that they might be burned in the press if they showed up. I thought they would be a bit more steeped in metaphor than they were. As you see in the film, they’re just very candid in their views about homosexuality.
DS: This is sort of a two part question in terms of how making a film can take its toll on you. How do you decompress from being there so long and documenting both sides of the story when you know one side is inherently wrong and hateful? How do you maintain that journalistic integrity for the film?
KFW: I think one of the hardest elements is when you are actually confronted with people saying factual stuff that you know is wrong. You can only protest so much against someone’s belief. If someone’s reading the Bible, their reading of it is always going to be subjective because they are choosing to read it a certain way. You can try to persuade them to think otherwise, but there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong there. The moments that were the most frustrating for me were when we would be coming straight from having lunch or spending a nice moment with David or with his mother and getting to know him as an individual and the wonderful man that he was, and then we go to Giles who would try to tell us he was a pedophile who was HIV positive and that he wasn’t even worthy of being called a homosexual because he was somehow worse than that. It was all of these absolute lies about David and these were the things that he was putting out to the masses. That made my blood boil quite a bit more than other moments. That’s a really good micro-example.
DS: The second part of that was how you felt after David’s death and you realize suddenly that you have been unknowingly documenting the final year of someone’s life.
MZW: It hit us pretty quickly. Almost at the same time we got the news. We had to make the decision if we were going to continue filming. There was no option as far as we were concerned. We owed it to David to keep going and David would have wanted us to keep filming to document the impact something like this would have not only on his friends and family, but also on the community within Uganda and, as it turned out, on the international community. It had repercussions around the world. It was definitely a very bizarre realization because we were on top of our job in terms of filming and we didn’t have much time to think about what it meant to us personally or that David had even been killed. He was a friend to us at that point and it was very hard to take, but we had to find a way to keep our focus and keep going and making sure we did a good job telling his story. We had to sort of separate ourselves from our emotions for the time being and take a step back to take it all in.
DS: Since you finished the film a couple of years ago, how have things been progressing in Uganda?
KFW: It’s kind of two steps forward and one step back. I think in many ways it looks like things have improved somewhat, but things are still very difficult. The bill is somewhat abolished by default at the end of Call Me Kuchu, but later it was re-tabled as soon as the next parliamentary session opened, and it still kind of lingers there today. It hasn’t been voted on yet, so it was never formally defeated or passed. It’s just there in limbo.
And some of the activists have had to leave the country due to security threats. A lot of the main activists are no longer in the country, but at the same time a lot of new people have come to the fore. The LGBT community is stronger than ever. They just celebrated their second Ugandan Pride.
DS: I don’t think I can get around not bringing this up especially in terms of the timing around the film getting released in Canada. There’s a really eerie parallel between what happened in Uganda and what’s currently happening in Russia. Having made this film, what’s it like looking at that situation through the lens of your own experiences here?
MZW: What’s so intriguing and bizarre about Russia is that a lot of the elements of the laws they have introduced have a lot of parallels with the anti-homosexuality laws they were trying to institute in Uganda. One of the key similarities between the two is this notion about the promotion of homosexuality, so it is really interesting how two countries a lot of people don’t think of as similar in many ways at all can be so adamant about passing these openly homophobic laws. They’re going after the LGBT communities in very similar ways. In addition to the promotions law, I think Russia also has a new “foreign agents” law meant to target certain organizations like the Side By Side Festival, which is the largest LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg and one of the biggest in the country. They were recently fined under this law that targets any sort of organization being funded predominantly from outside the country. It allows Russia to target a lot of human rights groups or anyone with that kind of record. As with Uganda, they are really trying to go after the LGBT community and their allies in multiple ways. That’s shocking, but there are a lot of other factors that are different, and there’s no real telling what will happen going forward.