David Kato went to astounding lengths to protect LGBT individuals in Uganda — and he was murdered for it
Winner of the Teddy Award for best LGBT-themed documentary at February’s Berlin International Film Festival, Call Me Kuchu tells the harrowing life-and-death story of Uganda’s first openly gay man, David Kato. Directed by first-time filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the film — having its North American premiere here at Hot Docs — offers viewers access into a year in Kato’s life. It follows him through his work to combat both an anti-gay bill that proposed the death penalty for gay men, and a gay-bashing tabloid newspaper that was outing members of the LGBT community with vicious fervour. It also sadly documents Kato’s brutal murder early last year.
Wright and Zouhali-Worrall had both been horrified with the tabling of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and decided to join forces to take on a project about Uganda’s stance on the rights of LGBT — or “kuchus” as they are called in the country. The filmmakers quickly learned that there was an increasingly organized LGBT community in Uganda that was fighting state-sanctioned homophobia through the courts and other means. They got on a plane to begin filming, and Kato was the first person they met upon arrival in Kampala, Uganda’s capital and largest city.
“We had to find him in the restaurant of a specific hotel — the only place he felt safe in the city centre,” they recalled jointly in an e-mail interview. “He reeled off names and numbers and introduced us to various people in the kuchu community, so initially he was somewhat of a fixer to us. But as we spent more time with him, we were increasingly intrigued by his fierce intelligence and passion, and realized that he was one of the most outspoken activists in the community. It soon became clear that he was the protagonist of our film.”
Through Kato, the US filmmakers got unprecedented access to Uganda’s kuchu community. Kato’s introductions led to a quick trust between community members and both Wright and Zougali-Worrall, who took careful measures to approach everyone respectfully.
“We tried to make clear to them that we wanted to document their stories well beyond the sound bites they were accustomed to providing to journalists,” they write. “We really had to convince them we were in it for the long run, that we wanted to be around for hours on end as they moved house, had meetings, watched TV, ate dinner, etc. There were definitely people who chose not to be filmed, and we respected their wishes of course. But those who decided to let us into their lives did so because they wanted to be involved in a project that would get their stories out, and we were surprised at the intimacy that engendered. In many cases, it seemed that those members of the LGBT community were looking for an outlet through which to share their individual experiences.”
Of course, Kato’s murder changed the filmmakers’ motivations for working on the film.
“While we had always been keen to get the story of Kampala’s kuchus out into the world, that sentiment became far more urgent and personal when David died,” they write. “We had essentially documented the entire last year of his life, and since his life was cut short, we had been filming during a time when he was at the pinnacle of his activism, when his philosophies and oration were most concrete and well-formulated, and when his voice and understanding of the complexity of the scenario was strongest.”
Since his murder, Kato has been mythologized as a courageous and passionate human rights activist, which Wright and Zougali-Worrall say is exactly what he was. However, over the time that they spent filming with him, they also got to know a man who was “charismatic yet vulnerable, sharp-witted, and often afraid to sleep alone.”
“As is true of the heroes of any movement, some of these character and situational subtleties have been overshadowed by the broad strokes of his accomplishments,” they write. “Our hope is that Call Me Kuchu, as a long-format character study, will help supplement the canonized David Kato, and ensure that people understand that he was a normal man who went to astounding lengths to liberate Uganda’s LGBT community.”
CALL ME KUCHU Screens at Hot Docs. $14.50. Wed, May 2, 3 & 5. Various locations. hotdocs.ca.