Equally gut-wrenching and inspiring, the documentary Call Me Kuchu beams right from Uganda, the global hypocenter in the ongoing and intensifying struggle over LGBT rights. Directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the film—from its opening moments—jumps right into the fray of Uganda’s media and government-sanctioned homophobia, outlining its outsider roots (leftover colonial laws from Britain; rightwing American evangelicals stoking the flames of bigotry) while making clear the Ugandan complicity in and responsibility for the anti-gay bigotry that has swept the country.
What makes Kuchu work as taut agitprop, and ultimately to devastating emotional effect, is that Wright and Zouhali-Worrall allow the enormity of the film’s political concerns to be telegraphed through the stories, experiences, and astute analysis of ordinary queer folk and their hetero allies. Young lesbian Stosh stoically faces the camera to tell of the family friend who raped her when she was a girl in order to show her “what [she’s] meant to do with [her] body,” and of the resulting pregnancy that ended in tragedy—with more grim consequences of the assault to come. When she dabs at her eyes at the end of her recounting, it’s heartbreaking. Knowing in advance that gay rights activist David Kato, the film’s charismatic anchor and moral center, is eventually murdered does nothing to diminish the devastating impact of the crime’s portrayal here. The grief of the mourners at his funeral is almost overwhelming.
Villainy in human form manifests not only in the expected religious and political figures, but most potently in the managing editor of a local scandal rag that outs gays and lesbians on its front page. (Stosh is one victim of the paper’s odious practice.) He boasts of using modes of entrapment in gay bars and clubs, and actually cackles as he discusses the paper’s destruction of lives. (In his callousness, he almost seems to have intentionally modeled himself on some overdrawn silent-film villain.) On the flip side, hetero clergyman Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is shown building a spacious safe space for ostracized and terrorized queer folk, gently quoting scripture to counter the bigoted interpretations of the bible that his counterparts employ.
The film stirs both dread and euphoria as it cuts back and forth from tense scenes of courtroom battles with the newspaper and even tenser daily encounters with homophobic neighbors and fellow citizens to at-home and on-the-street interviews with its queer subjects. The lessons are both uplifting and sobering. The courage of Kato and other out queer Ugandans is on a heroic level given the animus that surrounds them. Kuchu powerfully demonstrates that the most potent forms of resistance and avenues of change are gays and lesbians using both institutional tools (the court system) and honest telling of stories from their own lives in order to spark social and political change. But eradicating bigoted laws or getting humane ones on the books is one thing. Changing attitudes is much harder, with a much longer road to travel toward substantial progress—as Kato’s gravesite makes clear.