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Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

Discussed in this essay:

Call Me Kuchu, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. 87 minutes.

God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams. Full Credit Productions/Motto Pictures. 83 minutes.

I have on my computer an eleven-second video to which I often return when I think of Uganda. I made it during a reporting trip a few years ago. What I see first are clouds, heavy ropes of twisted gray in an ashen sky, soon to unravel into black sheets of rain. At the center of the frame is a makeshift stage on which a crowd of black men raise their hands above a kneeling knot of whites. It is an anointing. A stringed instrument drones, languid and hoarse. A Ugandan preacher growls: “ — this land! You will put a new fire in this life, may the new fire of travailin’, new fire of supplication, I call for the spirit of intercession — ” The video ends.

I know that the prayed-for fire is really a piece of legislation, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I know that the bill’s author, a member of Parliament named David Bahati, considers himself merciful, since although “serial offenders” receive the death penalty, having gay sex just once results only in life imprisonment. But I don’t watch the video to remember these facts. I watch it because it reminds me of what it felt like to be there, a guest of Bahati’s, to see through the eyes of a man who wants the state to erect a gallows to satisfy his holy imagination. The video fragment offers no solution; it doesn’t reveal cause. And yet it’s still more than I’ve fully grasped, which is why I keep watching.

I made this clip at a 2010 revival meeting led by an American pastor named Lou Engle. An increasingly influential fundamentalist leader in the United States, Engle made a poor showing in Kampala. He called Uganda “ground zero” in the spiritual war on homosexuality, but while it was true that the bill was so popular that ordinary Ugandans marched for it in the streets, Engle’s crowd numbered only around 1,300. American preachers can be big in Uganda like American bands used to be big in Japan, but Engle is a newcomer to the so-called Pearl of Africa. Still, among the crowd were filmmakers: Engle’s own crew, and cinematographers for what would become two oddly complementary documentaries about sex, law, and religion in Uganda, Call Me Kuchu and God Loves Uganda, both released to theaters this past spring.

Production photograph from Call Me Kuchu, courtesy the filmmakers.

Production photograph from Call Me Kuchu, courtesy the filmmakers.

Call Me Kuchu, named after a Ugandan term for queer and directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, features a small group of Ugandan LGBT activists as they attempt to live ordinary lives; God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams, has at its center a small group of American missionaries attempting to live what they mistake for extraordinary lives. Both documentaries are message films, meant to alarm American and European audiences, but they take very different approaches. Call Me Kuchu follows its subjects; God Loves Uganda directs its viewers. Call Me Kuchu becomes (spoiler alert) a martyr film, in the tradition of The Times of Harvey Milk and the fictionalized Milk, or Malcolm X, the documentary, and Malcolm X, the feature. God Loves Uganda is an exercise in comparison, bouncing back and forth between extremists being extreme and liberals being moderate. Both films — like me, opening this essay — use Lou Engle, a Johnny-come-lately to the fight, as an embodiment of hate.

I didn’t know about the documentary makers at the time, but I could see that Engle’s rally, crowded with international news crews, was camera bait. Bahati was not an orator. He seemed little interested in the stage, and cameras need spectacle. That’s what Engle was there for — to create clips for the folks back home, fund-raising gold, scenes of his team of white prayer warriors laying hands on dark-brown skin, blessings jolting in both directions. And we, the reporters and documentarians, we wanted the same, if for different purposes.

Glimpses of the rally flicker through Call Me Kuchu, a beautifully wrought film of visual intimacy and emotional subtlety, a documentary that reveals rather than instructs. Even the rally is evocative, not declarative: we see Engle rocking forward and backward from a pivot at his hips like a rabbi davening, a stentorian Ugandan in a dark suit — the minister of ethics at the time, James Nsaba Buturo — droning on against the gays. These passages are as much mood as data, used as counterpoint to the main subject of Call Me Kuchu, an activist named David Kato who introduces himself as the first out gay man in Uganda. The main subject of God Loves Uganda, meanwhile, is Engle’s church, the International House of Prayer (yes, IHOP; members relish the kitschy association), particularly the young missionaries it dispatches to Uganda, and the liberal clergymen — the traditionalists in this story — who oppose American evangelicals’ projection of their sexual anxieties overseas.

The documentaries each offer up Engle’s rally as a stand-in for the complexities of influence and corruption in the neocolonial relationship between Uganda and the United States. But Engle was simply making himself louder and more flamboyant than the Bahatis and the Buturos and their American allies. He’d played no role in the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, an initiative that has American roots that run deeper than these films can explore. Bahati began his career in 2004 in the United States, at Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute, a school of “political technology” for conservative activists. From there he went to the Cedars, headquarters of the Family, or the Fellowship, a deliberately low-profile movement dedicated to instituting “biblical” law. Back home in Uganda, Bahati rose through Parliament with the aid of the Fellowship’s weekly meetings for Ugandan politicians. Pastor Rick Warren, a man of moderate reputation in the United States who nonetheless equates same-sex marriage with incest, has been a guest of the group, as has Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who coined the phrase “the three Gs”: God, gays, and guns. Inhofe, who claims to have “adopted” Uganda, says he brings Africa the “political philosophy of Jesus,” as taught by the Fellowship. When I asked Bahati whether there was a connection between the Fellowship and the bill, he said, “There is no ‘connection.’ They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.”*

It’s fair to fault these films for reducing the development of politicized homophobia in Uganda to a caricature in which the baddies are very foolish, and thus sure in the end to lose. They have not lost yet in Uganda, where the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, stalled for three years now by international pressure and domestic politics, remains only one articulation of a virulent homophobic fever.

And yet, to let such a critique obscure the very real power of these films would be to indict the documentary tradition itself, the “essence” of which, wrote the great documentary scholar William Stott, “is not information.” But what is it then?

Call Me Kuchu begins with an image of two speckle-winged insects locked together on a denim-clad knee. kampala, uganda, appears at the bottom of the screen. “Do you think these are both male?” asks a playful voice. The camera pans up to a small, bald, sharp-boned man. “These must be kuchus,” he says. We see a back yard filled with people chatting and laughing. These must be kuchus. A tall, powerfully built man presides over a cake: it’s a party. “These are our hosts tonight,” he says: two men, a couple celebrating their ninth anniversary. “The reason we are here,” the emcee continues, “is to jubilate with them.”

Jubilate. What a lovely, rarely heard piece of language. Were you to stumble on this film with no knowledge of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, you might take jubilation for its real concern. The success of the film, the success of the man at its heart, David Kato, is in its portrayal of a luta, a term for “struggle” that queer Ugandans adopted from Mozambique’s liberation movement, as just that: liberating. A few minutes in, while a gentle guitar plays, we follow Kato up a red dirt road to his little house in a village. He tells us his coming-out story. It is 1992. He is in South Africa, where he discovers the existence of male prostitution. “Here men buy other men.” He decides to try. The man he chooses tells him, “It’s like you’re really gay.” The prostitute isn’t — it’s just a job — but he brings Kato to a gay bar. “Meet David,” he says, “my friend from Uganda.” Kato goes home with a man. For free! He marvels at the man’s giant bed. “You know with our poverty in Uganda, I’ve never seen such a bed. So I sleep like a kid, this side.” Kato folds his shoulders into a curl, miming and smiling. “He says, ’No, don’t worry, come close to me.’ ” Kato almost shivers and the camera zooms in on his delight. “And I went crazy,” he says. “It was my first time.” He was twenty-eight years old. “I thought, it’s nice.”

Call Me Kuchu starts with a party and proceeds to sex, which, it reminds us, is silly and fun and exciting. Do we need reminding? Yes; consider the example of God Loves Uganda, in which the only queer sex depicted is via a slide show presented by a Ugandan preacher named Martin Ssempa, who for the sake of his flock has selflessly harvested the fields of gay porn, offering up to the congregation giant images of a leather-clad man rimming another man. Nothing wrong with rimming, but anybody of any persuasion might be taken aback at such a photograph projected on a big screen at what they thought would be a religious service. It’s Ssempa, not the men in the picture, who has been inappropriate, but he nimbly redirects his followers’ anger toward the men, American homosexuals who seek to draw African children into licking their white asses. Is it any wonder that the churchgoers see not sex but a projection of empire?

The “good guys” in God Loves Uganda are not kuchus but two heterosexual clergymen, a Zambian Anglican priest named Kapya Kaoma (the film seems to imply he’s Ugandan) and an Anglican bishop of the Church of Uganda named Christopher Senyonjo, who was excommunicated for refusing to condemn homosexuality. Both men really are heroes. Most of the world would likely not have heard of Uganda’s homophobic crusade if Kaoma, who now lives in Boston, hadn’t secretly videotaped some of the early meetings from which the Anti-Homosexuality Bill emerged. Senyonjo, who still wears his collar and a purple clerical shirt, has lent solace to untold numbers of Christian kuchus who want to believe they’re still part of Christ’s kingdom. I’m glad for the attention God Loves Uganda brings to their work. But by making progressive churchmen its heroes and venomously conservative churchmen its villains, God Loves Uganda satisfies a liberal American sensibility at the expense of the kuchus themselves. It’s not only queer people who fade from the picture. The many meanings of homophobia, its hydra-headed threat, disappear as well. What’s left is deliberately familiar. Push one button: indignation. Push another: admiration. And here are the facts you’ll need to confirm the feelings you already knew you had.

I think Ugandans are interested in looking at pictures of homosexuals,” a young man named Giles Muhame tells the camera in Call Me Kuchu. Muhame’s gaze is not kind: he is an editor of a Ugandan tabloid called Rolling Stone (no relation) that attempted to make a name for itself a few years ago with an antigay campaign. 100 pictures of uganda’s top homos leak, declared a headline above shots of Kato and Senyonjo. Kato and his organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda, went to court. The case consumes the middle part of the film, but Call Me Kuchu doesn’t become merely a courtroom drama. Indeed, as we watch Kato and his friends joke and strategize, we can almost forget what’s at stake. Muhame is at least partly correct: the personalities of these men and women, as they shop and cook and dance, play with babies, and dream with Kato of a “gay village,” really are interesting. More interesting than Uganda’s legal veneer of civil society, even when the court surprises everyone by issuing an injunction against Rolling Stone.

Victory! A very small one, but you take what you can. Time for a party. Long Jones (the jubilating emcee) practices walking in heels, drag-show contestants strut down a backyard runway, and the camera soaks up the saturated color of Christmas lights and costume jewelry and the glint of shiny clothes on grinding bodies. It is a kindness. I wish the filmmakers had let the party last even longer. The scene made me so happy I paused the video.

Of course, such images present a visual cliché no less misleading than the caricature of Lou Engle’s rally. Drag on film has become almost wholesome — a thrill of transgression that is, in fact, reassuring. The scene could be a metaphor for documentary film itself: “shimmying exoticisms,” as the critic John Grierson dismissively described the genre’s early experiments in 1932. It’s a re-enchantment, for better or worse, of the known world, calling our attention again to that which we only thought we’d already seen. Grierson, who in 1926 coined the term “documentary” with more earnest endeavors in mind, preferred the “blazing fact of the matter.” But facts don’t burn; they shift, according to the hands holding the camera. Every lens bends the light. That curve, the invisible made visible, is documentary’s calling.

The party ends with B-roll, Kato standing alone, coming forward unsmiling into the camera, music displaced by an offscreen voice, that of a news announcer: “Gay-rights activist forty-six-year-old David Kato was attacked at his home by unknown assailants. He was hit with a hammer on the head and died on the way to hospital.”

Suddenly, a story that’s dreadfully familiar. “I was reading a book,” another activist says at a meeting when Kato was still alive, “and I got a quote that says, ‘The tree of freedom is watered by the blood of martyrs.’ . . . There is need to have some sacrifice here. For these issues to get out there.” A Norwegian diplomat, to whom the activists have come for guidance, nods. She knows what kinds of stories sell.

The filmmakers briefly succumb to that temptation by rendering the murder as a clear-cut case of political assassination, despite the confession of the twenty-two-year-old killer, who claims he attacked Kato because Kato made a pass at him. That ambiguity they leave out of the picture. In so doing they miss a chance to show how homophobia politicizes the apolitical. In Uganda, a kiss between men cannot be just a kiss; a killing such as Kato’s cannot be just a murder. That becomes evident at Kato’s funeral, where the filmmakers stay closer to the body than to narrative convention and thereby find a story stranger and more powerful than martyrdom, a story that earns our tears.

God Loves Uganda uses footage of the funeral as well, but in this film it’s the equivalent of the diplomat nodding. Whatever it takes to get the message out. Williams’s film starts with a prophecy from Kaoma: “Something frightening is happening that has potential to destroy Uganda. And it’s coming from the outside. If we don’t move fast I foresee a lot of death happening.” Williams then transports us to IHOP’s Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters. Kaoma’s Episcopal church, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, is nearly empty; IHOP is a dance party, children spinning, a grown woman twirling with a red cloth like a hippie matador, rapid-fire prayer in whatever terms put themselves on the tongues of the believers, tears of joy streaming down their faces. In other words, your typical megachurch. Williams might have made more of that fact, the energy of American evangelical churches versus the graying quiet of mainline Protestantism, but it’s not clear that he recognizes IHOP’s ordinariness. “Spiritual war” is the current call of mainstream American Christendom. African Christendom, too. The team of young IHOP missionaries Williams follows to Uganda giggle at crude Ugandan toilets and depend on translators to help them bring the gospel to this gospel-besotted nation, but for all their Ugly American ways, they may be closer to most Ugandans than Kaoma or even Bishop Senyonjo, a saintly man in an age of “relatable” Christianity, Hawaiian shirts and sharp suits instead of priestly robes.

Pastor Robert Kayanja, another of Williams’s subjects, is more representative, even though he is one of Uganda’s wealthiest citizens. Kayanja’s megachurch — 80,000 strong and connected to a network of more than 1,000 churches across the country — is in many ways as American as Lou Engle’s, a site of pilgrimage for superstar American pastors such as T. D. Jakes and the aptly named Creflo A. Dollar. The prosperity gospel is more popular than any political one, and although Kayanja makes the right (for Uganda) noises about homosexuality and sin, that’s because he has to. In 2009, when David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Kayanja took no position. Pastor Solomon Male — seen as Kato’s courtroom nemesis in Call Me Kuchu — catapulted himself to national fame by making Kayanja himself the target of his antigay campaign. When I met Male, he spent most of his time leafing through a binder of documents purporting to show that Kayanja had been raping young men and buying off the police with an order of new toilets purchased for the Kampala force. The toilets appeared to be real; but one of Male’s witnesses, who said he’d been raped by a Kayanja associate in a secret sodomy ring, told me his male attacker had used witchcraft to hide breasts as “big as Dolly Parton’s.”

None of these complications appear in God Loves Uganda. Williams presents a Manichaean vision of Christianity, with lonely saints such as Senyonjo on one side and hypocrites such as Engle on the other. Were the film only that, it would not be worth watching as anything more than a simplified introduction to the crisis in Uganda. Its redemption as documentary is found in its young Engleites, militant as Pastor Lou but cuter, tumbling across the Ugandan countryside like a tipped-over basket of kittens. Their leaders are Jesse and Rachelle Digges, Americans who are in Uganda, they explain, as repayment to God for bringing them into matrimony at age eighteen. They’re tall and lean and tan, Rachelle’s hair long and often unruly, Jesse’s posture like that of a skater. “God has what I like to call an army of young people,” Jesse says, hastening to add that he uses the word “army” only because it’s “intense.” They’re joined by a team of Americans who aim to “deposit . . . the DNA of prayer and worship” in Uganda. This requires some doublethink on their part: they’re attracted to Uganda because it is a strongly Christian nation, but they also wander the countryside asking people whether they’ve heard of Jesus, whose Good News they’ve brought fresh from Kansas City.

Their story makes for a great film within a film, comic and horrifying. The junior God squad is opposed to homosexuality, but they don’t know about the bill, mostly because they don’t want to know about the bill. They cannot sing a song about it, as they like to do when they drive around in Jesse Digges’s van, one of their number beat-boxing for the Lord. Their Ugandan counterparts are not politicians or megapreachers. They’re true believers, enamored of whiteness and wealth, ambitious young men who express their admiration for what they understand to be the moral seriousness of America by saying things like “I imagine Kansas City being a place where people are not going to joke.” They’re young women like this one, so striking I had to stop the video and stare.

She’s at a nighttime prayer meeting and she’s fallen out in the spirit. She’s barking like a dog, cawing like a bird. Those around her lay hands on her as if to complete a circuit. We know nothing of the meeting, we know nothing of her or her views on kuchus or whether she herself is one. She is simply stricken, raised up by being knocked down. The camera that follows with its white light, pinning her to the ground, makes me think of Weegee, the great urban photosensationalist of the 1930s and ’40s, famous for what his flashbulb revealed of nightlife crimes and ecstasies in New York City. A drag queen climbing with a smile out of a paddy wagon, a couple making out in a movie theater, lots of dead bodies. Weegee liked crime scenes, but he was no detective. He made documents, not stories. His photographs did not solve crimes, they presented them. They did not teach, they exposed, they revealed. They were revelations, truer than nuance.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (W. W. Norton).

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