In the lead-up to the recent Film Africa festival, I sat down with the co-directing/producing team of exceptional Uganda-set LGBT activism doc Call Me Kuchu to discuss how they approached such a tough subject, how they went about making their film, and their views on the Ugandan media landscape. An edited version of this interview has been published on the excellent website Grolsch Film Works, but what follows is the unabridged transcript. The interview contains a fair few references to the real-life events depicted in the film, so if you’ve yet to see it, and want to view the film cold, exercise caution. Enjoy:
PPH (in bold): What motivated you to make the film?
MZ-W (Malika Zouhali-Worrall, in regular): There are a bunch of reasons but the main one was that we heard about the case of a female-to-male transgender activist called Victor Mukasa from Uganda and a while back his home was raided by the Ugandan police. All his stuff was taken illegally and one of his colleagues was harassed. He decided he wasn’t going to stand for it and he sued the Ugandan Attorney General for police harrassment in the Ugandan court. He ended up winning that case. When we heard about that in 2009, we were intrigued to hear about this really gutsy activist community, or at least one gutsy activist who was willing to sue. That would be a big deal in the US or the UK. Also there was a judiciary system that was independent enough to be able to find a case against the government, and there was a constitution that was enforced by the courts. And then all of that in opposition to the fact that there are all these horrible anti-sodomy laws on the books, and that people are being imprisoned for their sexual orientation. There was awful discrimination going on. It made it clear that it was somewhere where the fight for LGBT rights was crucial in the sense that the stakes were really high, but it wasn’t a hopeless story. There were people who were already changing the situation and fighting back.
Ultimately we wanted to explore the issue of LGBT rights outside the global north, and we didn’t want it to be a hopeless story, which narrowed our options down a bit, tragically. We felt it was very important to tell a story which had some hope in it. We ended up researching some more and we were introduced to David and the Bishop, and we spoke to them on the phone before we went to Uganda, and then the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced and it was really obvious that we had to go as soon as possible.
PPH: It’s a tough subject matter – how did you go about raising funds to get it made?
KFW (Katherine Fairfax Wright, also in regular): Initially we just went on our own funds. We bought tickets ourselves and hard drives and I already owned the majority of the equipment. So our overhead was pretty low, but it was still significant because our savings accounts are minimal to say the least! We thought it was a worthwhile risk and we went on our first shoot like that, and came back, started editing what we had and started applying for every grant under the sun. Six months later we got our first grant from Chicken and Egg pictures which is this wonderful female filmmaker organisation in New York. This film is particularly well suited for the way the grant world works in the US because there are so many different disciplines at play: there’s African’s rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights. And we’re also female filmmakers and so these grants became open to us. It’s also highly competitive because in the US very few people are commissioning stuff, and few are giving you money up front, especially for documentaries. So we’re all in the same boat.
l-r: David Kato, Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Katherine Fairfax Wright
Is the idea that it’s easier to make films these days because of technology etc… a bit misleading?
KFW: I don’t think it’s a myth in terms of making the film, I think it’s a myth in terms of getting it financed or distributed.
As filmmakers, unlike a lot of social issue docs, you’ve elected not to impose yourselves. You’re not heard asking questions, you’re not in front of the camera etc… What motivated that decision?
MZ-W: I think ultimately in terms of the style of filmmaking we both like, we kind of just wanted the audience to know and become intimate with the characters. We knew that there was going to be a social issue at play, and we knew that we’d want the film to somehow have an advocacy role, but we personally felt that only way we would want to do that would be through empathy and through humanizing the people involved so that audiences related to them and didn’t see them as “black” or “Ugandan” or “LGBT” or “African”. “African” was something we were very wary of because we’ve seen loads of films and social documentaries about famine or conflict or what Africa’s generally understood to be about. We wanted to make a film that took people beyond these labels. It could have been possible to do that with the filmmaker being in front of the camera but we didn’t see how we could do that. We were far more interested in spending that time examining and getting to know the cameras, rather than working out how we could insert ourselves.
It’s interesting you bring up the issue of representation of such issues in the media. I’m thinking about the Kony 2012 campaign here. How do you guys feel about that – is that something you guys were actively trying to avoid?
MZ-W: Well that happened recently relative to when we started working. But yeah, definitely! [Laughs] We definitely tried to avoid what Kony 2012 did.
In terms of the characters in the film, you let them speak for themselves. Do you have empathy with what might be seen as the villains in the film?
KFW: Someone like Giles [managing editor of inflammatory tabloid Rolling Stone] I have less sympathy for because I don’t see him as being as genuine as the others. He admits to what he’s doing. People like reading articles about homosexuals so he’s publishing articles about homosexuals. Recently I read an article when he said, “It was a mistake to print all that!” [laughs], kind of back tracking, because now it’s uncool to print stuff about homosexuals, so I find him a bit more problematic. Whereas someone like the vehemently anti-gay pastors… I certainly don’t agree with their position and certainly I’m not a religious person so I can’t empathise to such a strong extent, but I do understand that it’s coming from their reading of the Bible. I think it’s a misreading of the Bible, but it’s their reading of the Bible and something they hold very close to their hearts and minds, and everything that they do. You can understand how it’s coming to pass that way. I also disagree with the way that they are carrying out that misreading of the Bible, but to some extent you can see how they’ve come to those conclusions.
MZ-W: It’s funny, because pretty much everyone who was actually campaigning on the anti-gay side, they pretty much all seemed opportunistic. They had a vested interest that wasn’t entirely about their religious beliefs. Bahati was a young, freshman MP who kinda wanted to get attention. Giles, also, was a young newspaper person who wanted to get attention. It seemed that everyone who made it a central part of their campaign, and the same for religious leaders, at least the Ugandan ones. It seemed opportunistic. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be trying to become famous off it.
KFW (to MZ-W): The problem with that argument, however, is that that’s exactly what they say about the activists. And that “they’re getting funding!”, “They’re on the cover of the New York Times!”
MZ-W (to KFW): But at least you can see that activists, that their interest in it is their experience, their existence. It all just seemed fake and opportunistic; Giles and Bahati shared this characteristic. There was bravado, and they wanted to be the centre of attention. They are showmen.
With Giles, were the stakes not so high in your subject matter, he’d be something of a pantomime villain. Did you have to restrain yourselves from giving him a smack?
KFW: Of course I disagree with what he’s saying, but he was also weirdly entertaining. It’s not every day you’re around someone so eerie and creepy and goofy. I think it’s easier also because I wasn’t the one talking to him, I was the one filming him. I could focus on that smile, and hope that giggle came across well in the audio waves. It was easier to distance myself because I was focusing on the filmic aspects.
Ugandan MP David Bahati, who introduced the anti-homosexuality bill
MZ-W: Also, in terms of the logistics of storytelling, it’s a fact that there’s all these homophobic people who have influence in Uganda, and Gilles was a storytelling gift in terms of conveying this movement in one person. And when you’re telling a story, if you can convey a story in one person, and do it honestly, and that person can become symbolic of a bunch of people, that’s gold, because that makes your life easier. Giles was really helpful in enabling us to show a) where things come from and who’s instrumental and b) encapsulate anti-gay sentiment and the source of that, and the ludicrousness and hysteria in this one guy.
KFW: He did it also while passing the checklist of legitimate journalism for us. At first it was like, “can we really have the whole opposition movement stand on the shoulders of this one guy?” If we pick one crazy outlier who says a bunch of looney stuff – will it play well for a left-wing audience? But the reason why we thought it was moral and passed journalistic integrity was that he was the one that was printing his views for an audience of thousands, and they were interpreting it as purely factual and disseminating it amongst their family and friends. And even though he was one man, he stood for the understanding of an issue for many thousands of people.
In the last couple of years of years we’ve had an incredible series of developments within our [UK] tabloid culture, and I didn’t think anything in your film was too far away from what we’ve had in the UK. How do you feel about those parallels?
MZ-W: I think one that was a bit scary, but we always really enjoyed, and in a way that makes you reflect on these issues, was the way that Giles talks; he has a really good vocabulary in terms of ideas of journalism. He talks about things in terms of the “public good” and “public interest”. He talks about moralistic journalism, but the morals he’s playing by are awful. I feel like that was one of the most interesting things about him, because I feel that everybody thought he was going to be an ignorant idiot who hates gay people, but he’s talking about why he’s doing journalism in the same way that people at the The Guardian or The New York Times would talk about why they would do journalism. Not for the money etc…, he had these high-falutin’ dreams, but the problem was his moral structure. It makes you think about how it’s all about perspective, and it’s an extreme version of the UK.
But yes, there are people who work at tabloids who would claim that what they’re doing is for the moral good, like outing paedophiles or whatever. It does make people think about tabloid culture. One thing that was a shame was that we weren’t able to quite illustrate the breadth of media in Uganda. They really do have a diverse media, and there are one or two government papers, there are tabloids, and there are independent, socially liberal papers that are relatively supportive of the LGBT community. But there’s only so much you can squeeze into an hour and a half.
I was pleased that your film paid some attention to the fact that a lot of these attitudes were imported in the colonial era. There’s often a tendency to sit in this Western ivory tower and “other” the third world. Was it important for you to include something about that in your film?
MW: It was, yes.
KFW: That woman Sylvia [a Ugandan contributor to the film] had so many great soundbites, and really understands the issue, and there were so many of her soundbites that we really wanted to include but had to come out. I think yes on the one hand it’s important to bring up, but on the other it’s just starting to prove why that’s a non-issue. The Bible you could say is from the West, because it’s missionaries who brought it there, but then this form of activism could also be said to come from the West, as the training is all happening there. Also this recent vitriol against the gay community is from the West. So it’s this constant cycle of import and export which makes, for me, the whole argument null and void, but it’s worth addressing.
Did you have any difficulties in getting participants to agree to be in the film?
MZ-W: To varying degrees. It became obvious that the only people we could really follow intimately as our main characters had to be people who were already out or had already been outed themselves. Just because there was so many security risks of filming a lot with someone who wasn’t out. That determined who the main characters were. Beyond that, whenever we were filming a group scene we’d try to ask every single person within the shot if they were OK being filmed and if they understood the implications. Some people would say, “Yeah, it’s fine! As long as it never appears in Uganda…” And you’ve have to say, “Well there’s this thing called the internet and it really might!” It was trying to have as many conversations like that. Some would say, “You can film me but you can’t show my face”. Others would say, “You can’t film me at all”, so Katherine would try to film around them to minimize the risk of having any footage of them. We screened it in Uganda two years ago, but ore recently we screened it there again to launch their first ever gay pride, but part of the purpose of that screening was to get everyone in the film to sign-off on it because people’s situations can change so much in the space of two years. Everyone signed off again which was great because we were really nervous. I feel that that’s also maybe a sign that things as rule have got better because people signed off on it really relatively easily; they didn’t seem to have any questions or concerns. That was pretty good.
Did the passing of David Kato make you consider not carrying on?
KFW: No, it was actually the total opposite. It was like, “Wow, suddenly we’re responsible for this man’s story living on”, because we had documented the last year in his life and we had really fallen in love with the way he did his activism, and he was so active on so many levels, to an extent that we weren’t able to fully capture it all. We were in the process of filming one final long shoot with him right before he died. So we felt this incredible responsibility immediately to disseminate that story as widely as possible. But before we were ready to do that we had a pretty difficult task in front of us; completing a film that was watchable, and that people would walk away with the feeling that it had been something powerful. That’s not an easy task when you no longer have your main character to participate. I think we felt a little bit apprehensive about that but also we felt encouraged by it, and the need to carry on with it.
Did you ever experience danger on set yourselves?
MZ-W: No, not really. And I think that’s partly because Uganda’s pretty open and open to journalists and foreign journalists; there’s a pretty strong sense of freedom of the press there. We got media accreditation for whenever we needed to film with an MP. Other than that it was pretty straightforward, honestly. It was really only after David’s death that suddenly everyone – not just us, but the activists’ – sense of what the key threats and risks were had been turned on its head. We had to suddenly reassess the situation. But Uganda is a really open and liberal and pretty free society, and relatively – with everything going on in the north – peaceful country. It made our job pretty easy in terms of security.
Have you stayed in touch with the participants?
MZ-W: Naome is in London with us, doing the press stuff, and she’s going to be at all the screenings. She now has asylum in Sweden. We’re in touch with everyone else. I think now that every main character has travelled with the film somewhere. Stosh is in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the film, which is interesting, because they’ve just passed a law outlawing homosexual propaganda.
It’s become more than a film, really…
KFW: That was always our intention. Yes, to make a film that satisfies our filmmaker sensibilities and helps our careers, but certainly there was a whole other aspect which was to make a tool that was going to be useful for them in their work, documenting their work so that others could learn from it and feel supported by it and inspired by it. That whole aspect of it is what’s still underway. We’re still forming partnerships that need to be formalized in order for us to carry on that work.
Like Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, there’s an accent in your film on the importance of social media in activism. What’s your take on that?
KFW: It somehow is only really evident now in the end bit of our film. Some people have seen it as a coda – like negatively, as in “Oh, how nice of them to tack on a coda for American audiences”. It’s frustrating that it only came out in the end because Facebook and things like that are hugely important to the movement. From day one people were talking about Facebook. There’s that one scene where they’re talking about the outings in the newspaper and Long Jones is like, “Did you see it on Facebook”? And we didn’t. It’s hugely important, because for security reasons they actually can’t convene as often as they’d like and they don’t have money for transport.
MZ-W: Every morning I’ll look at Facebook and be like “Oh great, 20 notifications! I wonder what people have been saying to me”. And it’s actually them posting to different groups that they’re members of. They’re incredibly active. And really strict sometimes about what each group is for. There’s often posts like “THIS IS NOT A DATING SITE! TAKE YOUR DATING ELSEWHERE! THIS IS FOR IMPORTANT ISSUES!” [laughs]. So they are all over that.
KFW: Twitter took a bit longer because they don’t really have smartphones.
MZ-W: And Twitter’s less about groups. The thing they use most on Facebook is the group settings. Twitter is more individual.
Call Me Kuchu is screening on limited release in UK cinemas, and is being distributed by Dogwoof.