The decision to make Call Me Kuchu, our documentary film about the last year in the life of Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato, came about as a result of two rather antithetical events.
The first was a 2008 lawsuit brought in a Ugandan court by Victor Mukasa, a transgender LGBT activist whose home had been raided by the police. Victor sued the Ugandan Attorney General for police harassment and won his case. In a country where a sodomy conviction can result in a hefty prison sentence, and where state-sanctioned homophobia is applied equally to gay, lesbian, and trans folks, Victor's legal victory was no small achievement. Six months later, when we read about the case, we were struck by two elements of the story: first, that there was an increasingly organized LGBT community in Uganda ready to take action against discrimination and persecution, and second, that Uganda's judicial system was independent enough to allow LGBT people, or "kuchus," to reclaim their constitutional rights and, in so doing, to push for recognition as part of Ugandan society.
Then, in October 2009, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in Uganda's parliament. It is a draconian piece of legislation, proposing a death sentence for HIV-positive gay men and prison for anyone who fails to turn in a known homosexual. When American evangelicals were reported to have influenced the members of parliament who authored and supported the bill, an uproar ensued in the U.S. media. But how, we wanted to know, were LGBT activists on the ground working to fight this proposed law? And what must be at play in Uganda for such a bill to arise within months of Victor's legal victory? Within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves on a plane bound for Kampala.
David Kato was the first person we met with once we arrived in Uganda. We found him in the restaurant of a specific hotel, the only place he felt safe in the capital city's center. He reeled off names and numbers and introduced us to various people in the kuchu community, so initially he was somewhat of a fixer to us. But as we spent more time with him, we were increasingly intrigued by his fierce intelligence and relentless passion, his sharp sense of humor, and his deep-seated fear of sleeping alone at night. He was also one of the most outspoken activists in the community. It soon became clear that David was the protagonist of Call Me Kuchu.
But the more time we spent in Uganda, the more it seemed that the U.S. and international media coverage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was only telling half the story: The majority of reports were dominated by a narrative of victimization that implied that Kampala's kuchus were powerless to do anything about their fate. This was at odds with what we saw while filming in Uganda. Although it was true that the LGBT community was suffering under Uganda's harsh, state-sanctioned homophobia, many of the kuchus we encountered weren't merely victims but dedicated and increasingly sophisticated activists who operated with absolute determination to improve their situation. One phrase that epitomized this attitude was a former rallying cry from Mozambique's war of independence that had been adopted as something of a mantra for David and Uganda's LGBT activist community: "A Luta Continua," or "The Struggle Continues."
But one year into our filming and just three weeks after a landmark legal victory, the unthinkable happened: David was murdered.
The weeks following David's death were among the most challenging of our lives. In a particularly difficult moment we visited David's mother with Naome, David's close friend and fellow activist, and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired bishop and staunch supporter of the LGBT community. We had spent time filming with David's mother before, so she was comfortable with our presence, but it was nonetheless a very tough experience. The pain of her loss was so raw, and our memories of David so fresh, that within moments tears were steaming down our faces, and our hands quivered as we fumbled with cameras and sound gear. It was moments like these that forced us more than ever to ask ourselves what exactly we wanted to achieve with the film and how we should go about it.
In some ways, David's brutal murder changed our motivations for working on the film. While we had always been keen to get the story of Kampala's kuchus out into the world, that sentiment became far more urgent and personal when David died. We had essentially documented the last year of his life, a time when he was at the pinnacle of his activism, when his philosophies and oration were most concrete and well-formulated, and when his understanding of the complexity of the scenario was strongest. He was a remarkable man, and we both felt a sincere responsibility to honor his life and legacy by making the best film that we could, and by ensuring that it had as broad a reach as possible.
It therefore seems quite fitting that this month Call Me Kuchu will have its New York premiere as the closing-night film of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. We will be joined there by Bishop Senyonjo and another Ugandan activist whom we follow in the film, as well as Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT program at Human Rights Watch, whose team has been a great help to the film since we started our research back in 2009.
But while we hope to use the opportunity of this screening to remember David and the continued work of Kampala's kuchus, it will also be an important moment to emphasize that the fight is most certainly not over. As the LGBT activist community becomes stronger and more visible, so, too, do its opponents. While the Anti-Homosexuality Bill failed to pass in 2011, in part because of David's work, it has since been tabled again in Uganda's parliament and currently awaits debate.
In recent years David and his fellow activists have worked tirelessly to change their own fate through every means possible: the Ugandan courts, the general populace, the United Nations, and the international news media. One of the reasons people around the world, including Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon, are talking about LGBT rights in Uganda and elsewhere is because the LGBT community in Uganda has been relentless in its efforts to propel their movement forward. As a result, Call Me Kuchu is a nuanced story of empowerment as much as a story of persecution. We hope it will provide audiences with a new understanding of Kampala's kuchus, both as a community that has achieved a tremendous amount in the past two years, even in the face of devastating loss, and as individuals who have actively chosen to become agents of their own destiny.
As David would say, "A Luta Continua."
Call Me Kuchu is the closing-night film of New York's Human Right Watch Film Festival, running till June 28. For more information on the film, go to callmekuchu.com. For more information on the on Human Rights Watch Film Festival, go to ff.hrw.org.
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