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“Kuchu” is the name the LGBT community in Uganda uses to describe itself, even as their country vilifies them as moral deviants and rapists. When a draconian anti-homosexuality bill was introduced, filmmaker Katherine Fairfax Wright and journalist Malika Zouhali-Worrall set off to Uganda to tell the story of a group of Ugandan LGBT activists led by David Kato, who was murdered in 2011 to the horror of the international community. This week at Silverdocs, I had the opportunity to talk to Call Me Kuchu director Malika Zouhali-Worrall and one of the activists in the film, Long Jones, who is visiting America for the first time.
How did you come to this story?
Zouhali-Worrall: We basically got going on this story, partly because we heard about this lawsuit that was being brought in Uganda by a transgender LGBT activist called Victor Mukasa. His home was raided by the Ugandan police and they took all his papers and his computers and arrested one of his colleagues and harassed him. And when Victor found out, he decided he wasn’t going to let it pass and he took the attorney general to court and he actually won his case. We heard about that in the context of these awful sodomy laws on the books that were being enforced…. So that’s really what got us to focus on Uganda and largely because we felt that all of that meant that there was room for the activist to really change something and make progress rather than documenting a story there was 100% persecution and there was nothing that those being persecuted could do about it. And then in October 2010, the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced and that basically imposed a death penalty on those HIV positive gay men and prison sentence for anyone who turned in a gay person. Hearing about that made it clear that there was all the more reason that it was time to get on a flight as soon as possible….And the one person we knew we were going to contact was David Kato. We spoke with him by phone before we met and when we got there we met with him and he introduced us to the whole community basically.
Long Jones, what was it like for you to be a part of this film? Were you apprehensive at all?
Jones: The directors they told me they were doing a documentary. I’ve done some documentaries that aired on Current TV or something like that. So I thought it was the usual usual thing not knowing that it was going to be something totally different, not documenting the life of the gay movement in Uganda.
Zouhali-Worrall: We were talking about journalists would would spend an intense week or something filming and then they would just never hear from them. So I think when we came back for another shoot, they’d be like, wait you haven’t finished yet? [laughs]
Jones: Unlike others who came for three or five days and leave and never came back, even when they had left they always kept in touch, wanting to know the progresses of the cases. So they felt very attached to the whole situation right from the very beginning.
What was it like to document someone’s life, and then ultimately see that life end tragically?
Zouhali-Worrall: Pretty traumatizing. We were actually in New York when we found out. So Naome, who was one of the activists in the film and a good friend of ours, texted me just saying that she’d heard this rumor. And then basically we had to wait in real time while Long Jones and others in the community actually went to the village where David was living to…confirm the situation…We were suddenly even more aware that we had documented the last year in his life and we had even more of a responsibility to just get back there as soon as we could and so there wasn’t even time for mourning because we had to get Katy on a flight back to Uganda immediately to get there in time for the funeral.
What is it like to be a part of a film that is being screened around the world and to be able to share your story and David’s story?
Jones: To me, I think it’s a historical moment or achievement being that they walked the life of David to the end and said goodbye to him and despite that, there’s another life that continues to move on. There are people who are still following and keeping the walk of David still going on. The battle is not over and being in the US basically to me, it’s overwhelming because it came at a time when I never expected it… This is my first time in America… Last evening in San Francisco, I broke down in tears because it was so much emotional. And looking at the audience at the Castro Theatre of 1,400 people giving a standing ovation. It’s something that I never pushed for, I never asked for and I stood there and I was like oh my god. And also when I just got into the U.S. through Newark Airport, I just realized that the first person who was there had rainbow earrings. And I was like oh my god. I felt like I should immediately say, hey look, this is me. The whole environment, the freedom, liberty, freedom of expression. People enjoy their life they way they should because basically that’s what freedom is all about.
Are you planning to go to Capitol Hill with this film to screen it before decision-makers?
Zouhali-Worrall: We’re working on a Capitol Hill screening right now with a number of organizations already doing amazing work on this issue in D.C. And I think that’s going to be in about a month during the World AIDS Conference. A load of activists from Uganda along with other LGBT and AIDS activists will be in D.C. for the World AIDS Conference so we’re going to take the opportunity to do it. It’s been really important to us since we started the film that it be an advocacy tool. On the one hand, both Katherine and I felt really strongly that the best way for it to be an advocacy tool was for it to focus on a character portrait rather than the social issues. So we really went after developing characters and showing how they work. But all of that was in the name of making something that would help people empathize with the issue. So it was really important to us that the story be about humans first and foremost. We’re really hoping for it to be effective on Capitol Hill. The organizations that we are working with are really hoping to use it not to preach to the choir but to target legislators that might be more right of center in an effort to have them then influence the people more further right of center.
Any plans to bring the film to Uganda to move the public opinion there as well?
Zouhali-Worrall: We’re working on that, yeah. Before we can do that, we need to make sure that everyone whose face appears signs off on it. Everyone who does appear in it, we had lengthy conversations with about being in the film. But situations can change so quickly, so we need to go back to them and get their sign off. And if and when that happens, we’re definitely hoping to work with the activists. They’ll take the lead because they know better than we do on who to show it to.
Call Me Kuchu screens again on Friday, June 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theater 2.