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.)