‘Pearl of Africa’ Challenges Media Stereotypes of Trans People and Africa: ‘It’s Not Ebola All the Time’

Jonny Van Wallström’s feelgood doc sees Ugandan trans woman Cleo Kambugu finding love

Cleopatra Kambugu

AMSTERDAM — IDFA today celebrates its fourth annual Queer Day with five films that portray the lives of LGBTQ people from all walks of life, aiming to spread a message of global inclusivity. Surprisingly, though, the two stars of “The Pearl Of Africa” – a portrait of 28-year-old Ugandan trans woman Cleo Kambugu and her cisgender male partner Nelson Kasaija– don’t feel too left out. Although they were recently forced to leave their native country because of the anti-gay law passed there in 2014, the couple have had no shortage of offers since. When the film premiered at Canadian fest Hot Docs earlier this year, Nelson recalls, native Torontonians would ask, “So are you going to move here?” And even at IDFA Cleo has been told that Amsterdam is so friendly “you can get a passport in a day”.

Both are flattered by the concern, but they realise there is an underlying agenda. Says Cleo, “It’s about how Africa has been portrayed [in the media] – there’s no hope there. But that’s not true, and I’m happy to challenge that narrative. We also have fun. It’s not sadness all the time. It’s not Ebola all the time.”

Surprisingly, however, “The Pearl Of Africa” was directed by a white European – Sweden’s Jonny Van Wallström – who came to the project almost by accident. “In the beginning,” he says, “I was making a different film about a gay couple who had fled from Uganda to come to Sweden, but then, as the project went on, one of them became too afraid for their families back home, so we had to stop. I’d made a film with activists before, so I knew that to make a film like that you had to be working with someone who has already made the decision to be out in the open.

“So then I went to Uganda to try to find a different angle on the story, because at the time there was a lot of talk about the gay rights issues in Uganda but there was not so much about the trans issues. I was introduced to Cleo through a friend and…” He laughs. “She was very sceptical at first! Both because I was white and because I didn’t have any connection to her or her community. But then we talked a lot about the kind of film I wanted to make – I was always eager to make a humanising portrait kind of film – not so much about the issue of being trans or the technical aspects of gender reassignment.”

The original meeting turned into a web series that was supported by the Huffington Post and subsequently crowdfunded Cleo’s surgery, something that was not very well received at home.

Says Cleo, “I had to leave [Uganda] with Nelson because the homosexuality act was passed by our parliament, and what it meant was that the people who were homophobic in my country felt like they had a right to act on their hatred. The same thing happened in the media. We did an interview with The Advocate in the U.S. It was a beautiful piece that talked about LBGT issues from a personal perspective. One of the most popular [Ugandan] tabloids took it from from the internet and twisted it, saying that we were the people who were spreading immorality in Uganda and that were we people who should be targeted. We were on the front page of this scandalous paper. Transgender women were called ‘hoaxes of homosexuals’ – they said we were hiding behind a female facade. So it was scary for me, scary for my family, my partner and my friends. My activist self wanted to stay and do something, but I guess my weakness is my family and friends. So I had to lay low for a while.”

Though the finished film is a testament to Cleo’s strength and personality, it was not a easy ride. “I don’t think I’m a very easy person to work with,” she admits. “I wanted it be humanising, like Jonny said. I didn’t want it to focus on my victimhood or trivialise my reality. I wanted it to tell my story while also being able to talk about my resilience – I didn’t want to be portrayed as a weak person that needs to be saved. I was also interested in making a film that could be shown in Uganda. I didn’t want this to be another Hollywood trans movie or documentary that would sexualise my identity and reduce me to being a trans person. I wanted it to be a story that starts a conversation at home and maybe also helps people understand issues about identity.”

But as the filming began, even that began to change. Says Jonny, “It started being a film about Cleo and her mother, but eventually, when she met Nelson, it became a love story. Which seems perfect now, but it was a coincidence.”

Nelson, a reserved but warm and unassuming individual, took a little bit of coaxing. “I was definitely nervous,” he grins. “I think I was more sceptical than even Cleo, because I was more a third party at the beginning and I didn’t see how I would fit into the story. It didn’t make sense. But eventually, as we talked more and got to know each other, I got on board, and since then we have really been pushing it, the three of us. We have learned from each other, and we have also learned what it means to be transgender. Though the movie we have met so many people – before I had no contact with transgender or LGBT people. My lens was widened, and now I’m 100% on board.”

The couple now live in Kenya, 45 minutes away, where Cleo works for an LGTBQ rights organisation. “So I was still going to stay in West Africa,” she laughs, “and I was still going to give the government hell!”

It’s a bold mission statement, but where exactly does Cleo’s confidence come from?

“A lot of people tell me I’m so courageous,” she says, “but I just think it’s life. When life throws you lemons you eat the rinds. It just so happened that I was different. I have 12 siblings – my father was very productive! – and at an early age I was told not to cower. My father told me not to be a weak person, because the world tramples on weakness”

She goes on: “So I told myself to have agency, to speak for myself. But, being transgender, I didn’t have any blueprint for my life. So I wrote my own, which allowed me to explore my identity. And I think there’s so much that transgender people can teach the world about identity. Because when you don’t assume that things should be the way they’re supposed to be, you’re able to explore what things could be like. People are used to being in a box.”