Pick of the week: Fighting the world’s worst homophobia

Pick of the week: "Call Me Kuchu" is the tragic tale of Ugandan activist David Kato, and a crucial film of our time

Topics: Movies, Documentaries, LGBT, LGBT Rights, Gay Rights, Gay, David Kato, Uganda, Africa, Call Me Kuchu, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies,

Pick of the week: Fighting the world's worst homophobia

If the moving, shocking and ultimately inspiring documentary “Call Me Kuchu” is about the struggle for gay rights in the African nation of Uganda, where a combination of evangelical Christianity and anti-Western resentment has produced a uniquely toxic climate of institutional homophobia and public hate speech, it’s also about something much larger than that. This urgent eyewitness account of an activist struggle amid extremely dangerous conditions has all the heroes, villains, twists and turns of a political thriller. It’s a tale of hatred, hope and enormous courage, and a lesson in the contradictions of post-colonial Africa. It’s a story about the way we live now, in our suddenly interconnected world, and one that dares to imagine how we might live in the future. It’s a love story and a story of martyrdom, both of them heartbreaking. I’ll be surprised if any other movie this year affects me as much.

There have been many times and many places where gay men and lesbians who dared to be open about who they were and whom they loved were putting their lives at risk. Our own society has changing rapidly around these issues, but there are certainly parts of America where the social codes of the pre-Harvey Milk era still hold, and LGBT people have to be very careful about who they come out to, and how. What’s so remarkable about Uganda, as co-directors Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall capture it in “Call Me Kuchu,” is its strange combination of past and future and its disturbing echoes of not-so-distant history. (“Kuchu” is a local slang term roughly equivalent to “queer,” and has been similarly reclaimed by activists.) While the gay community in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, remains quiet and largely closeted in the face of implacable public hostility, its members are connected to a much larger world that was not visible from the closets of the 1950s. They’re in touch with activists in London and New York; they’ve seen video of pride parades in Berlin and San Francisco. They know that freedom is possible.



Wright and Zouhali-Worrall largely went to Africa to meet and film David Kato, a lean, wiry, quick-witted man in his 40s who by his own account was the first gay man to come out in Uganda, and was the nation’s only full-time gay activist. Charismatic, elegant and absolutely tenacious, Kato would have been the protagonist of this film even if he hadn’t become the victim of a January 2011 hate crime that shocked people around the world, turning him into the Martin Luther King or Steven Biko of the gay-rights struggle in the developing world. (I know I just issued a spoiler for those of you who don’t know Kato’s story. But this is history, not fiction, and you’re better off going in prepared.)

Kato and a handful of other Ugandan activists in “Call Me Kuchu,” including retired Anglican bishop Christopher Senyonjo, one of the few Christian clerics in Africa to stand up for gay rights, were fighting against a rising tide of public homophobia that has assumed frightening dimensions. Calling both on African nationalism and on a sweeping religious revival led and inspired by right-wing white preachers from Western nations, Ugandan politicians and tabloid journalists have periodically whipped the public into anti-gay hysteria, staging “Say No to Homosexuality” rallies and spreading libelous legends about “sodomites” seducing schoolchildren. One Kampala newspaper called Rolling Stone (not connected in any way to the American magazine) has conducted especially hateful campaigns, outing dozens of people by publishing photographs taken undercover inside gay bars and parties, dubbed the “Men of Shame” series, and urging “Hang them!” on the cover. After a terrorist bombing, probably the work of an Islamic militant group, killed more than 60 people in Uganda, Rolling Stone actually published a story suggesting that “homo generals” had planned the attack.

The filmmakers interview the managing editor of this fine publication, a handsome and seemingly intelligent young man named Giles with an unwholesome tendency to giggle at things that aren’t funny. Watching this guy explain patiently that universal human rights do not apply to gay people, and that David Kato deserved to be imprisoned, tried and executed for his flagrant homosexuality, is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen in a film. I certainly flashed back to Hannah Arendt’s famous observations about the “banality of evil,” and I couldn’t help imagining the Giles of an earlier era, just as young, good-looking and enthusiastic but with a somewhat lighter skin tone, explaining that the Jews were a cancer within the German nation that needed to be excised.

So that’s the context in which David Kato lived and died, a context where the notorious proposed law that would have mandated the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” – which seems to mean refusing to go back into the closet after coming out once and getting caught – was supported by most Ugandan legislators and a wide swath of the public. As a local law professor explains in the film, this isn’t simply a question of “traditional African attitudes,” but also of stern ideas about sexual morality introduced by the colonizing Western powers, which have now left those ideas behind and moved on to a more liberal mind-set. Intense pressure from Western leaders (especially President Obama, beloved in Africa) and the United Nations has so far kept this nightmarish law off the books, but for understandable historical reasons that kind of interference often hardens local attitudes.

There are stirring legal and personal victories in “Call Me Kuchu,” to go along with a delightful drag pageant (held discreetly in a private home), an ephemeral vision of a back-to-the-land gay commune in a rural village and a heartbroken karaoke sing-along of “Rivers of Babylon,” after Kato’s funeral is interrupted by anti-gay Christians, that left me in tears (and not for the first time). I was weeping at the tragedy and pain, of course, and also in shame that I had done nothing to help these courageous, embattled people who have sacrificed so much. But I was also weeping in gratitude, to the filmmakers and to David Kato and his friends, for giving us such a gift of truth and hope.

“Call Me Kuchu” is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, and opens June 21 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles, with more cities and home-video release to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>