Interview: Call Me Kuchu, co-dir. Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Call Me Kuchu (dirs Katherine Fairfax Wright, Malika Zouhali-Worrall) was released in UK cinemas back in Nov 2012 and comes out on DVD today. Touching and inspirational, the film stands alongside The Queen of Versailles, One Mile Away and Sing Your Song, as one of the best documentaries of 2012.
David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man, works tirelessly to try to improve the situation for LGBT people in Uganda. After a momentous court victory for the LGBT community, tragedy strikes in the form of his brutal murder. The film then captures the aftermath of this horrendous crime, observing David’s friends and family during this period. In doing so, Call Me Kuchu presents the real-life consequences of hateful rhetoric and unlawful policies, whilst lingering on a movement which remains ultimately hopeful that their fundamental human rights will be upheld.
After catching up with co-director Katherine in November 2012, BEVer Sonia Zadurian spoke to Malika about how the project came about, activist David Kato and how the situation in Uganda looks today.
How did the project come about?
We heard about a transgender LGBT activist called Victor Mukasa whose home was raided by the Ugandan police. They took all his computers and terribly harassed a colleague of his. He decided that he wasn’t going to stand for it and sued the Ugandan Attorney General. A few years later, he actually won in a Ugandan court. That was in late 2008. We heard about the case from a friend in 2009. We were astonished that in a country where there were these terrible sodomy laws in place and LGBT people could be imprisoned because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, there were activists like Victor who were gutsy and organised enough to bring cases against the Ugandan Attorney General. Suing the Attorney General in the US would be a big deal, so we were really impressed by that and also by the fact that the judiciary was independent enough to be able to recognise that Victor had some constitutional rights that the government had violated.
All of that implied that there was a hopeful story to be explored in Uganda. As well as this story of persecution that we were already aware of and that’d we’d initially been exploring, we ultimately realised that we didn’t want to tell a completely hopeless story, as it seemed what was going on in Uganda was pretty empowered. The film is a really mixed bag, but ultimately one thing that people always seem to be surprised by is how much the activists are able to do to change their fate. We were really excited to be able to tell a story that was about people from Africa actually doing something proactive and positive, as most of the films we see about Africa are about conflict and famine and so on.
As well as pro-LGBT people, you interviewed the editor of The Rolling Stone and significant figures on the other side. Were you ever tempted to include more or less of them?
When the anti-homosexuality bill was first introduced in Uganda it drew a lot of media attention. It didn’t take long for investigative journalists in the US to start drawing the connections between American evangelicals, the minister of parliament and religious leaders who were pushing this bill. One guy in particular, called Jeff Sharlet, has done incredible work on this. That meant that really early on it felt like the American Evangelical angle was being covered in a lot of detail, so we decided that we wanted to cover the point of view that wasn’t getting that much attention. This was the activists working on the ground. So much of the attention from America and Europe seemed to be America or Europe centric.
This was true to a certain extent. The problem was influenced by American evangelicals, but we were interested in telling a story that was immersed in Uganda and told from the perspective of the activists there. There were definitely points where we thought, ‘should it be an equal story where we’re following two characters on either side?’, but ultimately it felt like it made so much more sense to follow the activists and then document the other side as it came up relative to their lives. Lou Engle, the American evangelical who you see preaching in a big rally in Kampala and saying some horrendous things, came up because he came to Kampala. The activists didn’t go to that obviously, but they were all very aware that it was happening. That was having a direct influence on the anti-homosexuality bill and the general opinion in the city. Similarly newspaper editor Giles Muhame started outing them, so it became obvious that we had to go and speak with him. That was how we came to each of those people. Obviously we had to speak with David Bahati because he wrote the bill. Other than that, we wanted to tell it from the point of view of the activists and their interactions with those people.
How did David’s death affect filming? Were you in Uganda at the time?
At the time that he died, we were in the process of planning an extended shoot with him, because we’d realised that he was a main character in the film but felt that we didn’t have enough footage with him. We needed more of his story and more detail of what he did day-to-day in his activism work, so we were planning that and then he was killed. On the one hand we had to deal with the emotional trauma of that news, and then also just really quickly realised that we had a responsibility to get back to Uganda as soon as possible and keep filming. So obviously that was a moment where we were re-assessing logistically, who were the people we’d filmed with up till then who we should continue filming with in order to really emphasise the importance and awful nature of David’s death.
Most of the people we’d filmed with were close to David, but we realised that we had to continue filming with the people who’d been closest to him because it was only through experiencing their mourning process that people could really relate to the concept of David’s death. It was obvious that just seeing him alive and getting to know him and then him dying probably wasn’t, in terms of telling his story, enough to ensure that people could really understand what it meant that he died. To a certain extent we felt that we needed the audience to go through the same experiences that we did, and the activists went through, which meant that we wanted there to be some time in the film after he died.
You mention continuing this battle and BEV are sure that after seeing the film, audiences will want to know if they can do anything to help. Is there any way that people in the UK can help?
Yes. We’ve partnered with Amnesty UK. They’ve just launched a website and they’re in the process of updating it. Currently it mainly has our screenings on but it does have a link so that you can join the amnesty LGBT action network which is their main network for campaigns on human rights issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s also a ‘take action’ tab on the website, which has that information and also has links to donate to an organisation called The Fund for Global Rights. That does a lot to support LGBT activists themselves in terms of their security and is a crucial thing that people don’t think about very much. People can also donate to help us continue distributing the film in terms of working with activists in Uganda and in the developing world to get the film into their hands.
Are you still in touch with any of the participants in the film?
Yes, we’re still in touch with everyone from one side. We haven’t been in touch with Giles since he said that David was burning in hell. Everyone’s story since the end of the film is really different. Long John, the Bishop and Frank, who you see briefly in the film, are still in Uganda. Naomi has just got asylum in Sweden and is starting to speak Swedish. She’s about to bring her children over. A few other people in the film are considering seeking asylum.
And how has the situation in Uganda changed since you finished filming?
The anti-homosexuality bill has been reintroduced and it could be passed any day, although it seems to just be hovering in the background, but it’s really difficult to know. A bunch of the activists workshops keep getting shutdown, ironically by the Minister for Ethics and Integrity. However, in response they’re actually suing him in a Ugandan court for violating their constitutional right to freedom of assembly, so that court case is going on right now. They’re also suing American evangelical Scott Lively in federal court in the US, with the US organisation The Centre for Constitutional Rights, and that’s under a specific American law that allows foreign nationals to bring a case against an American citizen in the American court system.
Who knows what will happen with it, but it’s a pretty major thing to hit back at these American evangelicals. The day-to-day situation on the ground in Uganda just fluctuates. I mean, they held their first ever Uganda Pride in late July 2012, which was awesome. They actually screened Call Me Kuchu to launch the pride, which meant a huge amount to us. Then a few days later, they had a pride parade which was shut down by the police and a bunch of them were detained. The more visible they become, the more at threat they are. But overall, I think they’re becoming stronger. Hopefully that will lead to a stronger and more open community, but it’s a slow process and there’s still a long way to go.
What advice would you give to women just starting out in film? In front of, or behind the camera?
Just be prepared to go out there and start it on your own. Unless you’re really lucky, that’s the main way to get it going. At least just get a trailer or teaser that you can then use to raise money.
Call Me Kuchu is out on DVD 25 February. For information on screenings and to take a look at the trailer, click here.