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Call Me Kuchu – Empowering Uganda’s LGBT Activists

by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts & Culture Editor

When I learned the principal character in the film Call Me Kuchu is the slain human rights activist David Kato, I felt a sense of relief. Stories come and go in the news media and then most often are forgotten. When news is no longer breaking, a good documentary film has the power to endure.

One of the many front-page stories published by Ugandan newspaper, The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community. Photo credit: Cinedigm.
One of the many front-page stories published by Ugandan newspaper, The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community. Photo credit: Cinedigm.

Call Me Kuchu is Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s courageous documentary of human rights violations against the LGBT people of Uganda. Recognized in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2012, Fairfax Wright and Zouhali-Worrall have created an intimate, character-driven portrait of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato and the individuals who risk their lives to stand up to proposed anti-homosexuality legislation and violence toward the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender (kuchu) community. The success of Call Me Kuchu is that we, as viewers, experience the film’s characters on a deeply human level so that their fight becomes our fight too.

Call Me Kuchu premiered at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival and has since screened at more than 100 film festivals. With theatrical distribution in Germany and the UK, Call Me Kuchu arrives in American theaters this week. When Call Me Kuchu screened at the Human Right’s Film Festival in New York City, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated on behalf of the film, “I take every opportunity to push leaders to listen and to act. But I am conscious that the hardest work is done by local activists like those you will see in this film.”

Fairfax Wright and Zouhali-Worrall’s film is the story of these activists. They are the few who have dared to step out of the shadows and stand up despite violence and proposed legislation that could have them killed for being who they are. In activist David Kato’s own words, “if we keep on hiding, they will say we’re not here.” Call Me Kuchu is an invitation to meet these activists, as human beings and as individuals. We also meet Bishop Senyonjo, a tireless advocate and supporter of the Ugandan LGBT community. Despite his expulsion from the Anglican Church, he maintains his theological understanding that “we are all one” and continues to fight for human rights.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall their experiences travelling to Uganda and filming Call Me Kuchu. From the very beginning, the filmmakers set out to make an intimate, character-driven film. “We wanted to bring something to the fore that we felt like other media outlets weren’t getting across as well” explains Fairfax Wright. She describes the beauty of long form journalism or documentary film as “the luxury of being able to explore things in depth, and explore people in depth, and really get across all the intricacies of their humanity.”

Once in Uganda, it did not take them long to find their characters. They met with David Kato on their first day in Kampala and he introduced them to various members of the kuchu community. Fairfax Wright shares how from this first meeting, they were captivated by “his charisma, intelligence and almost rude humor.” David quickly became the film’s main character.

The intimacy of the film can be attributed to the filmmaker’s connection with the film’s subjects. They took the time to develop friendships with the characters and earn their trust. For much of the filming, they lived with Naome, a close friend of David’s, and one of the film’s main subjects. Looking back Zouhali-Worrall believes that living with Naome “made a big difference to our relationship to the community as a whole. Ultimately, Naome, David and Longjones (fellow activist, LGBT counselor and prominent film subject) became our friends.”

During the filmmaking and relationship building process, the film’s characters became “almost equally invested in making the film as [the filmmakers] were.” Zouhali-Worrall notes “David was very invested from the beginning; but there were other members of the community who ended up being invested who initially, understandably, were very cynical about journalists, filmmakers, and researchers coming from Europe or the US to interview them. Some, more or less, didn’t want to talk to anyone like that anymore.”

It took a couple of shoots, and the filmmakers returning to Uganda after three months and again after six months, to help the community realize what they were trying to do. “In some ways,” Zouhali-Worrall explains, “while we clearly weren’t technically members of the community, we did become honorary members in some respects. [The LGBT community] respected what we were trying to do and definitely started to help us in any way that they could. That was really important to creating the intimacy that allowed us to make the film.”

An important aspect of this film is the presentation. The filmmaker’s also interview parliamentarian and author of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, David Bahati, allowing viewers to witness, without directorial bias, the situation. Bahati’s homophobic legislation proposes the death penalty for HIV-positive gay men and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a homosexual. The filmmakers interview Gilles Muame, managing editor of Rolling Stone, a Ugandan tabloid that publishes articles directly putting kuchu lives in danger. Headlines such as “Hang Them” foster hatred, violence, and fear towards the LGBT community.

For the filmmakers, the interview process was challenging at times. Fairfax Wright illustrates how “we would leave David’s office having heard these very intimate stories from him, having really gotten to know him much better and we then would go to this other person’s office for an interview and he would name David as some despicable specimen of humanity and that he should be killed.”

Zouhali-Worrall tells me, “Initially we thought our job was to challenge and pick apart their arguments. After a while we realized that wasn’t our job. Our job was just to step back and document what they believed their logic was and present that, as it was in the film.”

One year into filming Call Me Kuchu, and just three weeks after a legal victory for Kampala’s LGBT community, David Kato was brutally murdered at his home. Despite the terrible shock to the filmmakers, they proceeded with the film. “We believed that we had a responsibility to David, as well as his community, family and friends, to document the impact of his death and the legacy of his life.”

For the rest of the world, we are fortunate Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall proceeded with their film. LGBT human rights violations, in the name of religion, are happening worldwide. Uganda is just one example. Call Me Kuchu is valuable not just as a film, but as tool for human rights activism everywhere.

About the Author: Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer and filmmaker. A member of Parallel 28 Equipe, she works with director Martyn Atkins and producer James Pluta to bring music documentaries and live concerts such as Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival to screen and television. Alexandra received her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Sarah Lawrence College and currently teaches Dance and Pilates at Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California.

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