Documentaries come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but one thing the vast majority of them have in common is that they’re usually telling a story about something that has happened in the past. They could be looking back centuries, decades or years, but more often than not they’re exploring events that have already come to pass.
Call Me Kuchu is a less common example of a film that explores an ongoing story by following people and events as they unfold, and the result is an at times harrowing, heartbreaking and hopeful look at the best and worst humanity has to offer.
While the subject of gay rights divides the United States for the most part evenly and peaceably, other countries vary wildly. Some are more accepting, and some are far more restrictive. Uganda belongs in the latter camp with 95% of Ugandans aligning themselves directly against homosexuality. Gay sex is already illegal and punishable by time in prison, but a newly proposed law would make repeat offenses punishable by death. The film follows David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man, as he and other activists fight to stop the law from passing. It quickly and quite literally becomes a fight for their very lives.
The term “kuchu” is “a synonym for the queers,” but as evidenced by the film’s title it doesn’t appear to be a derogatory one. Instead it’s embraced by Uganda’s LGBT community and used frequently by David and his peers as they share their own stories to the filmmakers. Some are told with smiles, like David’s recounting of his first experience with openly gay men in the streets and bars of South Africa, while others offer a window into an all-too common tragedy. Stosh, a young lesbian, shares her tale through tears about contracting HIV from a man intent on forcibly showing her the “right way” to have sex. The term “curative rape” is applied and is a practice often committed by male relatives to “cure” lesbian tendencies.
Naome, a full time activist and lesbian with two kids, has her own stories, but her focus is forced into the present when her picture appears in the local paper under the headline “Shock as Lesbo Snogs Babe on TV!” The paper, Rolling Stone, becomes the second front along with the courts for the activists’ war against systematic oppression. Rolling Stone posts dozens of photos of gays and lesbians, sometimes accompanied by home addresses, along with front page quotes calling for the offenders to be hanged. A terrorist bombing of a crowd watching the World Cup leads the paper to report in big headlines that “Homo Generals” were responsible for the attack.
Giles Muhame is the paper’s unapologetic and amused editor, and while the legal ramifications ultimately hold the most sway the power of the press can’t be understated. Even a tabloid like Rolling Stone shapes public opinion, and having an editor eager to “ignore the right of privacy in the interest of the public” can have a more devastating effect on people’s day to day lives than any statute. Unsurprisingly, the socially approved hate is exacerbated by religious figures both local and imported in the form of American preacher/swindler Lou Engel.
These events feed a darkly swirling undercurrent of fear, disgust and violence that weaves throughout the film like a viper, coiled and ready to strike. The dread-filled anticipation is occasionally unbearable, and the fact that the feeling is that strong even filtered through a film watched from the comfort of a couch makes the activists’ courage, tenacity and positivity on display here that much more inspiring and impressive.
Directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall wisely aim their documentary at all of the humanity on display instead of simply focusing their cameras on the struggles and dramas. The hate-mongering pastors above are countered by a local bishop who sets up high-walled safe houses for gays and lesbians to gather, celebrate and relax in peace. Another activist, the tall but soft-spoken and frequently smiling Long Jones, looks over a delivery of condom samples meant to encourage safer sex and comments “They look small, they’re not for the African market.”
Call Me Kuchu tells both big and small stories, but it’s the power of the more intimate tales that fuels and informs the global importance of the larger one. The proposed law would criminalize “aiding and abetting” the gay community by offering HIV testing or by failing to turn known gays (even your own children) into the authorities within 24 hours, and the penalty in both cases would be three years in prison. And to ensure it wasn’t glossed over above, the suggested penalty for “Aggravated Homosexuality” is death.
The Upside: Inspirational, powerful and important story; strong sense of humanity, for better and worse, running throughout
The Downside: Filmmakers aren’t shy about not being impartial
On the Side: Giles Muhame, who now works for Chimpreports.com, describes himself on Twitter as an “Investigative journalist, social media entrepreneur, political analyst, strict moralist & God-fearing intellectual.”