New documentary web series “The Pearl of Africa” takes us inside the Ugandan LGBT movement through the eyes of Cleopatra Kambugu, a 27-year-old Ugandan transgender woman. Following the controversial anti-gay Ugandan bill in 2014, Cleo was “outed” as homosexual in popular tabloid Red Pepper and forced to flee to Kenya for her safety. The new series takes viewers into the high and lows of Cleo’s life over an 18-month period. New episodes appear every week on http://pearlofafrica.tv/
Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Swedish director Johnny von Wallstrom about what drew him to Cleo’s compelling story, the risks of shooting such a film in a hostile environment, and how viewers can help Cleo in her struggle to fight for a more just world.
Why were you first drawn to Cleopatra Kambugu’s story?
About two years ago when I was in Kampala researching and looking for characters for the film, I heard about Cleo who was transitioning openly in Uganda. This was not so long after the death of David Kato, an activist who was murdered in Uganda. So I was struck by the bravery and determination she had. I knew I didn’t want to make an activist film, but rather a film that focuses on humanizing transgender people. When I met with Cleo she shared this thinking. The day after we shot the scene when she’s in a beauty salon with her nephew.
When did Cleo first decide to come out? Was her family accepting of her change in gender?
I’m not sure what year exactly but it was while she was studying at the University. Her dad was furious and she was thrown out of her home. Later some of her family has started to accept it, but she still doesn’t speak to her dad.
Did you face any risks or have any concerns shooting this documentary given that Cleo’s identity is seen as crime?
You’re always aware of threats at any moment you step out of the plane in a country where your documenting stories that aren’t accepted by society. That you can be thrown into jail, interrogated, or sent home. But as I think Werner Herzog has said: “it’s always worth spending a night in jail for any shot at that makes it into the film.” Or something like that. There are threats and I try avoiding those I can, but if you want to capture a person living in this situation you have to be in some form of danger to capture the story. Now Cleo has been able to live a normal life in Uganda so the threats while filming haven’t been that obvious. I’ve been more worried how releasing the web series will affect me being there in the future.
While being gay or lesbian is also taboo in Uganda, do transgender people face more discrimination and violence than homosexual individuals?
No it’s quite the opposite, if you have transitioned. As long as you’re perceived as a male or female and are looked upon as behaving the opposite, then it becomes a problem. So being a guy “acting” female is not accepted. But for Cleo, who has been on hormones for a while now, she could live as any other woman most of the time. Until she was outed in the media.
The film focuses on Cleo’s perspective, but how much do you show how her boyfriend Nelson has been affected by prejudice?
Because it’s a feature film, we wanted the web series to leave some things unanswered. We’re doing a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for Cleo’s sex reassignment surgery, and that’s why we wanted it to focus on her. So for the feature film we will look more at her family and Nelson. This is just the beginning of the project.
Why do you think Uganda has become such a crucible for anti-LGBTQ sentiment?
Well in history Uganda has always known about LGBTQ people, they’ve had derogatory terms for them, but they existed. Now they’re trying to say this is something that western culture has brought on them. It’s a funny way of trying to blame everyone else because they don’t want to progress. In the west LGBTQ people have not so long ago also been outcast, but we got over it and hopefully most people look at them as human beings today. Unfortunately Uganda doesn’t look upon them as normal human beings, they see trans people as mentally ill. They see the anything not hetero as a sin and a dirty lust. Then the male role in Uganda is also threatened by all of this, which makes it a sensitive topic. But the main reason for it exploding is that for so long the media has been boasting this subject and spreading hatred around the country, just like churches have, so there has been hatred building for some time. Then when the law was put in practice it exploded. People were allowed to attack anyone identifying as LGBTQ.
Why is Kenya a safer environment for Cleo and her boyfriend?
Mainly because she’s not outed in the local media. It’s still an issue there, too, but not being on the front page of a large newspaper helps. Then I feel they’re a little bit more progressive, maybe not outside of the capital but I haven’t been there enough to know.
How do you hope that this film will change the perceptions about transgender people among more conservative communities?
I really hope it can help give an insight to them as human beings because so much of the films about the trans community is an exotic portrait, which I don’t think helps at all. I hope people who don’t know trans people can feel like they’ve met a transgender person having watched the documentary.
How can we help promote a culture of respect for the human rights of LGBTQ individuals on the continent?
This is really difficult I feel. The radicals will always say this is western propaganda. So I don’t think I for instance can show this film there, it has to be done by the local groups themselves. We hope to be able to do this in East Africa and hopefully that can spread. Because the film carries a universal transgender story that isn’t unique for Uganda but worldwide, it also has potential of doing this all over the world. But I think the best we can do is help the local LGBTQ community to raise their voice just by asking them what they want us to do. Because it changes all the time. One thing we should stop doing is portraying Uganda or “Africa” as a horrible place where bad things happen, because that undermines our credibility and it’s just stereotyping the region.
Are there any ways in which we can help support Cleo?
As I mentioned earlier we’re fundraising for Cleo’s sex reassignment surgery right now. She’s determined to become the first trans person accepted for her gender identity. So people can help by engaging in that campaign. If she is able to be accepted in Uganda, it will be a huge step for the LGBTQ community.
We can start changing our way of looking at LGBTQ people, starting with how we portray them in our culture. Change the stuff on TV and in other media outlets. Right now there is too much stereotyping and not many take the time to understand stories they aren’t familiar with. This is on a producer, writer, and creator level. Our culture does affect African nations, this is why there’s such strong resentment towards people like me making stories depicting them. But since this is a testament that they are listening we would definitely, with time, affect things positively. But first we need to change our society because it’s far from norm here. It won’t change over night anywhere. This means telling stories that includes LGBTQ people in our western society, where they are regular human beings. Make it a norm and people will follow.
We should also work to make LGBTQ people normal especially in music and sport. Just look at how few gay athletes or rappers there are. Change that and people will stop the bullshit attitude against LGBTQ people. Look at the effect Frank Ocean and A$ap Rocky has had and you can see the potential change there.
How has the process of making this film affected you personally?
It has really given me the opportunity to learn about the trans community in Uganda on a deeper level. Understanding how their life story has been and what happy and not so happy moments they’ve had in life. But I’ve also gotten to know both Cleo and Nelson as friends. It’s really given me a much stronger connection with African culture if we can box that into one category. And on a filmmaking level it’s made it possible to create a personal story that I’ve been thinking about for long.
What projects do you hope to pursue next?
This project will continue during 2015 as we’re still going to be filming the journey Cleo and Nelson are on when they go to Thailand. But I’m also starting a documentary platform about alternative Scandinavian culture. Where we are going to do short documentary series about stories related to Scandinavia. Essentially trying to understand the culture diversity here. But one of those stories is about a Ugandan R&B group who was based in Sweden for many years and has now returned to Uganda. The story is about them living with the duality of western and African culture while doing a music comeback. In Sweden we’re following some young gangster rappers which hopefully can give an insight into a kind of Sweden not many people know about. So a lot of things are happening this year.