Filmmakers Turn to Africa’s Nascent LGBT Movements

As Acceptance Accelerates in U.S., Spotlight Shines on Places Where Being Gay Is a Crime

LGBT documentaries focus on African gay

The Supreme Court is poised to decide this week on two major same-sex marriage cases, but on Tuesday night in D.C. a handful of lawmakers are expected to attend an event that reflects a new frontier in the LGBT movement: Africa.

On Capitol Hill, filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann will screen “Born This Way,” in which they follow activists in Cameroon, where homosexual relations are illegal and subject to up to five years in prison. Their project, which will also screen at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 14, comes on the heels of another documentary, “Call Me Kuchu,” from Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, which focuses on activists in Uganda who seek solace through that country’s court system yet face homophobia, threats and the looming possibility of so-called “kill the gays” legislation. The latter documentary debuted in Los Angeles theaters on Friday.

Both projects, however, try to defy assumptions of Africa as a place beset by struggle and hopelessness, but one that has glimmers of progress amid tragic setback. The vibrant and charismatic Ugandan activist David Kato, at the center of “Call Me Kuchu,” was brutally murdered as filmmakers were in the midst of the project.

The filmmakers also say that it is an oversimplification to portray what is going on in the African nations as what America went through in the 50s and earlier, as the each country’s own history, culture and technology have placed them on uncertain trajectories.

“They are not where we were 50 years ago,” Kadlec says of those he profiles in Cameroon. “They are where they are right now.”

“Born This Way” shares its title with Lady Gaga’s hit song, which, with its message of tolerance, resonates with two young gay men featured in the film. The influence of American culture was unexpected, Kadlec and Tullmann say, but also the willingness among LGBT activists to go on film. They spotlighted Alternatives Cameroun, the first LGBT center in the country, and of the 12 people they talked to when they first arrived, all were willing to go on camera, Tullmann says.

“We were surprised, and I think that it speaks to the gravity and the urgency of the situation there,” she says. “There was one person who said, ‘We are tired of Cameroon pretending that gay people don’t exist. We are ready to step forward.'”

What was precarious for Kadlec and Tullmann was that they traveled on tourist visas. It is illegal to shoot documentary footage in the country without a permit, and although they filed for one, they never followed through as it would have meant having an observer with them at all times. Instead, with a Canon HDSLR and a Panasonic HVX200, they trekked around the country by watching out for police or other government officials. They snuck a camera into a courtroom where two women were on trial for “lesbianism and witchcraft.” Another memorable scene comes when a young lesbian woman, Gertrude, comes out to the woman who raised her, a mother superior. The point was to feature the people and not talking heads, Kadlec says.

The film debuted at the Berlinale in February, and it was then that Tullmann sat next to Cameroon’s ambassador to Berlin at a lunch at the American embassy for the festival. He hadn’t seen the film, but said he would. “He didn’t have an optimistic sense of change, but it was clear he didn’t have any difficulty with the legalization of homosexuality.” The country’s president, Paul Biya, has suggested that minds may be changing on homosexuality, although it is still a crime.

“Call Me Kuchu,” which debuted at the Berlinale in 2012, centers on the efforts by Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man, and a retired Anglican bishop to defeat proposed legislation, in part inspired by American evangelicals, that proposes the death penalty for HIV positive men, and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a known LGBT person.

The backdrop is an environment of intense homophobia, led by a newspaper whose managing editor is on a crusade to expose homosexuals, with blaring headlines like “homo terror.” Kato leads a landmark case against the paper to a legal victory on privacy grounds, but three weeks later he was murdered in his home. At the time, Wright and Zouhali-Worrall were one year into the project. Although they were aware that Kato was in a risky situation as a visible activist, “I think the greatest surprise is the way it came to pass,” Wright says of the slaying. “It wasn’t in the middle of a protest. It was in the middle of the day in the privacy of his home, possibly premeditated.”

The filmmakers, too, see change in Uganda, particularly when it comes to pursuing cases in the court system. The movie has screened at the first ever Ugandan pride event, although they are leaving it up to activists there how widely they want it to be distributed in the country. The anti-homosexuality bill has yet to pass but it is still a possibility, and “right now they feel like things are slightly precarious,” Zouhali-Worrall says. The goal, however, was not to focus on the plight of LGBT Ugandans, but to “find a group doing a lot to change the situation at hand,” Wright adds.

While such legislation is a contrast to front-and-center LGBT issues in the United States, the activists in Uganda are “interacting with activists and human rights organizations all over the world,” Zouhali-Worrall says. “They are on an understanding and a learning curve that is probably at a more accelerated pace” than the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s, acutely aware of what is happening elsewhere. Progress, though, is not always so apparent amid setback and instances of violence.

“There are all these signs that the community overall is getting stronger over time,” she says.

Photo: “Born This Way”