Born This Way, a stunning new film by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, lifts documentary into art. With our wary new enlightenment, we assume the rest of the world is just fine with the idea that, who you love, how you love, is up to you.
In Cameroon, being gay is against the law. You will be imprisoned if the person you love is constructed the way you are. You will be hunted down. Cameroon has more arrests for homosexuality than anywhere else in the world. The stories of the people you meet in this film have the desperate lure, the suspense and emotional power of fiction. This would indeed be a stunning play. Except you'd miss the vision of Shaun's direction. There's the shot that catches the deep privacies of the secret chapel; benches lit with rainbows of color from the stained glass windows. And then the moon poised in the dense midnight sky -- the lens catching the expression of its cold eye, mirroring the isolation of the characters, people living in terror because of who they love.
I saw Born This Way at a screening hosted by Jamie Wolf, the film's executive producer who is committed to L.A.'s art scene. She knows exactly what is happening with every new filmmaker whether in a Venice loft, an Echo Park studio or at a poets' recital under an arch made of old books in The Last Bookstore downtown. Jamie Wolf is a serious artist and a writer; her instinct for artistic integrity is infallible. Wolf was impressed by Shaun's short films: "I liked the texture of his work." She requires texture: the enrichment of pattern, perspective, innovative contrasts which make her personality, gardens, fabrics, all the art she creates and supports, come alive. All art must have honorable motivation or it lies flat.
Jamie Wolf had met Shaun and Deb through Steave Nemande the Founder of Alternatives Cameroon, the first LGBT Center in Cameroon. At this safe haven, gay people meet each other, learn about AIDS prevention and find counselling support to help deal with family rejection and all the other challenges of the gay world. The Center also creates and provides a space for art exhibits, fashion shows, dances, encouraging opportunities for expression.
With support as dedicated to their vision, as to their cause, Shaun and Deb went to Cameroon with no idea what they'd find. This was not a simple project. They do not speak French, the country's language. For example, Deb shot a scene where a young gay woman, Gertrude, and her partner are taking a taxi to the Center and the taxi driver is quizzing them. Uneasily, they answered, all speaking French. Later, Deb was appalled to discover when they screened the scene, the taxi driver was asking" "What is it like with two women?," "How do you make love?"
This awareness of the ingenuity it took to make Born This Way provides an anchor between the stories of tender Cedric (he's received death threats from neighbors); he weeps with fear at letting his mother know he is gay, and Gertrude who feels shamed as she reveals who she is to her mentor, a nun, who will remind you more of a generous artist than the cloistered nuns from old movies. ("Cloistered." Indeed. Another story.)
You will also meet Alice Nkom, an iconic figure, who became, at 24, the first black female lawyer in Cameroon. This was 1969. In 2011 she was threatened with arrest by her country's Ministry of Communications when they discovered her Association to Defend Homosexuals had been awarded a grant by the European Union.
The story of shooting the film is, in itself, a scary adventure, not only for the filmmakers, but also for the people sharing their stories. It is illegal to shoot documentary footage without government permission, so they stayed undercover, moving around the city and countryside with their heroic characters on the buses and motorcycle taxis, cameras in backpacks. "Because of the fear and danger," Shaun and Deb said, "we connected with our subjects; felt empathy, although what they go through, every moment, every day, is far more serious."
Shaun and Deb explained, that as they spent time involved at the Alternatives Cameroon Center, "the fear evaporated as we built Born This Way around our subjects' movements between safety and danger."
You will see, right away, Born This Way is not an "essay film." "This," as Shaun and Deb learned, "is a view from the inside of a secret community on the verge of transforming into a social movement." There are few documentaries, which draw you in so deeply. You might be devastated by facts, stirred to action -- but rare it is when the lovers' passion and despair is potent and lacerating as any lovers on a giant screen; a silent screen, a Shakespearean stage, or the bed where you once whispered to your soul mate.