An inspiring documentary about LGBT activists in Uganda, “Call Me Kuchu” opens with friends celebrating a gay couple’s ninth anniversary. In this country where homosexuality is illegal and newer, more draconian penalties are perennially threatened by politicians, filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall profile the late David Kato — who called himself, as did many others, the first openly gay man in Uganda — as well as the circle of friends and allies around him. A dedicated gay liberation fighter and opponent of violence and discrimination aimed at LGBT people, Kato’s charisma is apparent as he describes his first time in a gay bar or when seen attending a church for gays.
“Call Me Kuchu” introduces us to Kato’s fellow activists Naome Ruzindana, a lesbian, and John “Long Jones” Abdallah Wambere, who, in one festive scene, dons drag with his friends. We also see Stosh Mugisha, who shares a heart-wrenching story about a so-called “corrective rape” she suffered. In fact, what we learn of everyone’s life in the film is affecting and often poignant.
What is most heartbreaking — not to mention shocking — is that these brave, openly LGBT Ugandans found themselves targets of Giles Muhame, the homophobic managing editor of Rolling Stone, a local newspaper, who “ignores the rights of privacy in the interest of the public” and publishes the names, addresses, and photos of LGBT folks as he calls for their hanging. Interviews with Muhame, where he casually discusses his anti-gay agenda, are downright chilling.
“Call Me Kuchu” chronicles the fight these gay rights activists, under the umbrella of Sexual Minorities Uganda, or SMUG, wage against their oppressors, including a legal challenge that Kato and Ruzindana lodge against Muhame’s publication. But it is what happens after the verdict — Kato is murdered just weeks later — that makes this film so powerful. While there is an outpouring of international acclaim for the work the activist achieved in his life, his friends in Uganda continue to question the quick arrest and subsequent conviction of a man “known” as a thief and described in some accounts as a prostitute.
Gay City News spoke with Long Jones via Skype from Uganda about his participation in the film — which takes its title from a word LGBT Ugandans have embraced in describing themselves — and his life as an out gay man.
GARY M. KRAMER: How did you meet the other LGBT folks in the film?
JOHN “LONG JONES” ABDALLAH WAMBERE: When I came to live in Kampala, I started mingling. We used to meet at a hotel and then go to bars. This is how we got to know each other. We built a network of gay and lesbians activists, and held events, workshops, and parties. We had known each other a long time before the filming began.
GMK: There are scenes of you and your friends doing drag in the film. Can you talk about that?
LJ: I must really say I love acting and I love doing drag. But we don’t have much space or opportunity to do this, so when opportunities arise, I make use of them! When I saw a photo of me in drag, I thought I would look better in the correct makeup and costume. It is entertainment — a kind of a show. I wanted to show that I can do it and I love doing it. But I am not a drag queen. It helps me try to express another part of who I am.
GMK: Why did you choose to be a part of the film? Wasn’t there danger in being exposed?
LJ: Yes, there was danger, but I decided to not let the issue of exposure stop me from coming out or sharing my experience as a gay person in a country which is homophobic and has no laws to protect or recognize same-sex relationships. This was not the first time I was exposed, but it was the first time I was being exposed willingly. I was exposing what I knew and my experiences as a gay man. I thought it was high time to show that we were not hiding — or not being real or who we are. There are issues in our society that affect us, and we want to tell the world the reality of what is happening here.
GMK: Do you still live in fear because you are out?
LJ: Once in a while, I must confess, that yes. I changed my address after David had died.
GMK: Can you talk about the case against Rolling Stone and Muhame?
LJ: David had two or three people suing Rolling Stone. What I remember was that on the day of the ruling, David was scared of the ruling. He thought that it would be negative. But all of the cases against human rights in response to sexual orientation have been successful. The judiciary is playing its role and not being biased. It respects the rule of law and people’s rights to privacy. But there is some pushback from the state. So people get harassed by security or blackmailed for money.
GMK: David was murdered and the film shows a man was arrested for the crime. Do you think he was the guilty man?
LJ: He could have been guilty, but we think the decision was rushed and they lacked enough investigation and evidence. When there is such a gruesome murder, they bring police dogs to sniff around and in this scenario they did not. They said it was a robbery, and that it had nothing to do with his sexual orientation or his work as an activist. The anti-gay group thought that he deserved to die. The way the ruling was handled, it was something we weren’t convinced of, but we can’t take it back.
GMK: David’s death was very difficult, but it called attention to LGBT rights issues in Uganda. How have things progressed after his murder?
LJ: After his death, we realized it was our obligation as activists to take on what David started. It was very difficult to find someone who can really do what David was doing — who could be as brave and as knowledgeable and determined as David was. But that does not mean that because we can’t hit David’s high mark that we should sit back. The war is a long way from being over. We should try to get the constitution amended and have LGBT people free to compete for work and health services without discrimination. It is the obligation of all of us at the end of the day to continue.
CALL ME KUCHU | Directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malike Zouhali-Worrall Cinedigm | Opens Jun. 14 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | Quadcinema.com