In 2009, Ugandan MP David Bahati proposed the ‘Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill’. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda prior to this proposition; the purpose of the bill was simply to make the law even more stringent, and the penalties suggested in the new bill include life imprisonment and the death penalty, as well as punishments for anyone who knows of people engaging in homosexual activity and does not report them. Call Me Kuchu, a documentary directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, explores the effects of this bill and the attitudes which have made such a proposition possible, through the lives of the activists who risk their safety to fight against it.
‘Kuchu’ is a derogatory term for ‘homosexual’, although – as the title suggests – it is a label which the individuals accept. Their activism is bent towards the goal of being able to be known as kuchus without being threatened because of the label, and they use the term among themselves. But in this case, to be known always means to be threatened. A newspaper called the ‘Rolling Stone’ published photos of 100 Ugandan homosexuals, including most of the activists we are introduced to, even in some cases providing postal addresses. On the front page, alongside the advertisement for the list, were printed the words ‘Hang them’. To be known as homosexual inUgandais to live in fear of one’s life, a fact which renders the voluntary ‘coming-out’ of these activists all the more remarkable and humbling.
As well as being made aware of the larger context, we are shown the activists as individuals, and their stories are horrifying. To choose just one example, Stosh Mugisha tells us that in her teenage years she was a victim of a ‘curative rape’ by a male friend who discovered her sexual preferences. We meet her not long after her identity was publicised on the front page of a newspaper, and hear how as a result those she considered friends were coming to her house with stones in hand.
Call Me Kuchu focuses more on one particular activist than any other, a man whose character exhibits both great strength and great gentleness: David Kato. The first openly gay man inUganda, Kato worked indefatigably on behalf of LGBT rights inUganda, and played an integral part in promoting the cause on an international scale. One of the founding members of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), he served as its advocacy officer. I use the past tense deliberately: during filming, Kato was murdered in his home, and the real dangers of being ‘openly gay’ are made apparent with staggering force. An especially harrowing scene follows at Kato’s funeral, where the overseeing preacher uses the occasion to deliver another anti-homosexual tirade.
The test that any documentary on social issues must pass is whether it gets its message across sufficiently, and Call Me Kuchu indubitably delivers on this front. Both oppressors and oppressed are interviewed, ensuring the documentary is a well-rounded one, but we never see the directors, for it is the subjects who are rightly given centre-stage. This unobtrusive approach allows us more fully to appreciate the situation and the people within it. The tireless work of the activists should be an inspiration to us all, but the film rightly emphasises that the terrible thing is that they need to do this work in the first place.
The bill is unfortunately set to be passed before the end of this year. Call Me Kuchu ends with the activist’s motto: ‘A luta continua’ – The struggle continues. This message could not have been delivered any better.