June 21, 2012

So many documentaries, no matter how pertinent their subject matter, give way to such maudlin tactics as background music and close-ups that they can’t, by any standards, be deemed good filmmaking. Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s Call Me Kuchu, playing in the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Human Rights Watch Film Festivalis that rarity of rarities: a documentary that values narrative over exposition and subtlety over shock value.

As the story of David Kato—styled the ‘first openly gay man’ in Uganda—and his community of fellow “kuchus” (the Ugandan colloquialism for LGBTI people), the film has all the dramatic tension of a natural narrative built in, from the first introduction of its charismatic subject, to his completely unforeseen (unless, of course, you’ve read up on this) death about halfway through. In the way of great fiction, Kato’s death comes on the heels of his victory in court over the local tabloid Rolling Stone, for forcibly outing homosexuals as ‘men of shame’ in its pages, and the rest of the film follows the community’s response in the midst of political turmoil that puts its continued, outed presence in Uganda increasingly under threat.

As Kato and the small, beleaguered community of out homosexuals fight for justice and tell stories of the many crimes of violence against them, the religious fundamentalists have an equally large, if clearly demented presence in the film, blasting out the maxim: “Gay rights are not human rights” every chance they get, on the basis of an ancient belief that homosexuality begets homosexuality by forcibly recruiting children. The impetus for all this is, and the film’s central antagonist, is the controversial Anti-Homosexuality bill that was introduced in 2011. On top of the laws that already  make homosexuality a criminal offense, the bill calls for the death penalty and requires compulsive outing or ‘reporting’ of known homosexuals by the rest of the community.

The film’s denouement comes, of course, at Kato’s funeral, where religious groups come to heckle and kuchus come to mourn. The timeframe in which all these events take place is deceptively long, and the film’s resolution (if it can be called that) is parliament’s shelving of the bill the first time it was presented. The kuchus rejoice, but not without obvious sorrow that, as one man says earlier in the film, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, ‘the tree of freedom must be watered with the blood of martyrs.’ Kato’s death, devastating as it was, will not be the last—a fact that the out community in Uganda is well aware of, and which seems confessed in the final shouts of ‘A luta continua‘ (the struggle continues) that close the film out.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Human Rights Watch Festival will run at the Walter Reade theater until Friday, June 22nd.

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