Kuchus - the new Uganda story
11th October 2012,
That’s the word for people whose sexuality deviates from the norm, but mostly for gays. Call Me Kuchu is the latest version of this recurring story, a documentary that tracks a group of gay men and women fighting a dangerous barrage of prejudice and hatred.
Many Ugandans will criticise the film for focussing again on this issue, but anti-gay prejudice has become one of the touchstones of the reality or otherwise of any country’s declarations about looking after the rights of citizens.
Gays are a small minority – a fact admitted by the ignorant, confused clerics and politicians who make a living out of attacking them, even while warning of the “threat” they post to marriage and the nation – but if you can’t protect and respect minorities your human rights rhetoric is empty and dishonest.
In addition, the people leading the attacks are often so grotesquely telegenic and quotable, precisely usually because they are spouting their anti-gay campaigns as a way of getting attention and publicity, that they are irresistible to visiting reporters and film-makers.
And, of course, sex – and people’s reactions to its manifestations – sells.
It’s true that this documentary and many other reports focus on anti-gay hysteria when there is so much else to report about Uganda, but the gay-bashers do the same: they blow up this one relatively trivial (in national terms) issue and ignore the country’s real social, political, culture and economic problems. President Museveni complains about Western pressure on his government to stop anti-homosexual legislation that carries a death penalty for HIV-positive gay men and prison for anyone failing to report a known homosexual: yet when he seized power 26 years ago he squashed party politics on the grounds that they were a distraction from poverty, ill-health and lack of education.
So Call Me Kuchu is a valid and important piece of reportage. Its importance was underlined when, a year after filming started, gay rights activist David Kato, who had gradually emerged as the film’s focul point, was murdered. The film becomes a testimony to Kato, and his courageous successor and colleagues.
His village funeral triggers one of the most shocking scenes in the film when a pastor gets the microphone and starts hurling abuse at the wickedness of the dead man.
The film has other ugly moments, particularly the ranting churchmen (the role of right-wing US “Christian” evangelists in ratcheting up anti-gay campaigns in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa has been crucial) and the truculent, giggling editor (“We shall ignore the right of privacy in the interests of the public”) who makes Britain’s tabloid press look like High Culture.
There are heroes, too, such as Bishop Senyonjo, expelled from the Anglican Church of Uganda for treating people like human beings (“We are all one in Christ”) and who establishes a counselling centre and safe house, and, more quietly, the magistrate who upholds the case against the (Ugandan, not the US) Rolling Stone newspaper (“HOMO TERROR! We Name and Shame Top Gays in the City”).
It’s a gripping, thought-provoking tale that touches on many issues even if it doesn’t look into them deeply enough. At its heart is a tragedy – Kato’s death, and the continuing threat to the lives of others.
As I watched the film, I wondered whether the risks run by this small group of public activists were worthwhile. I lived in Uganda in the '60s and was aware of the existence of a small number of gay Ugandans and of a couple of gay bars; I took little notice of them, and nor did the residents of Kampala. They were ignored: politicians and pastors hadn’t discovered the potential rewards of exploiting them. But Kato was right, as he took the battle to government, to TV, to the courts, to the United Nations: “If we keep on hiding, they will say we’re not here.”
* Call Me Kuchu will be premiered at the Curzon Soho on 29 October, followed by director Q&A, and opens in UK cinemas on 2 November