Frameline 36’s Centerpiece documentary, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s powerful “Call Me Kuchu,” will generate a fair share of audience hissing and angry screen talkbacks at its Castro Theatre screening.
Being called a “kuchu” in Uganda opens the labeled gay or lesbian target up to stoning, fatal beatings, or worse. Thanks to publicly sanctioned homophobia from the government and the media, the average Ugandan believes homosexuality is a depraved lifestyle built on continually luring innocent children into its fold. Despite this extremely hostile environment, a group of LGBT activists led by openly gay David Kato attempt to bring public challenges to discrimination against Uganda’s LGBTs. Their efforts are tested by a tabloid which encourages the hanging of the gays they publicly out and, more ominously, the notorious “Kill the Gays” bill.
Though Wright and Zouhali-Worrall take a “just the facts” approach to their documentary, it’s difficult to avoid seeing their film as a cautionary chronicle regarding letting religious beliefs shape a country’s rule of law. Ugandan MP David Bahati, author of the “Kill the Gays” bill, cites God’s word as justification for his homophobic legislation’s existence. That bill’s unashamed trampling on the human rights of LGBTs and their supporters demonstrate once again that marrying church and state creates a union based on a toxic lust for unfettered power.
Ugandan homophobia is ironically justified as a rejection of the West’s harmful influence. While anti-sodomy laws were introduced in Uganda by its British rulers, those laws were eventually repealed in Great Britain. American fundamentalist evangelicals such as Lou Engel have encouraged pious Ugandans to believe in the threat of a homosexual agenda.
The filmmakers’ portraits of such pro-LGBT activists as David and Kaome capture the enormity of their struggle without downplaying the difficulties of waging this uphill battle. As David talks with his attorney about fighting homophobic tabloid Rolling Stone in court, the temptation to push back against the paper’s latest incendiary lie clashes with the reality of having limited legal resources. Fears of betrayal by or even attacks from one’s neighbors make personal security a constant concern.
One wishes that “Call Me Kuchu” displayed a little less visual flatness and a little more political context, such as explaining why Ugandan homophobia got stoked to this depicted level of public viciousness. But such misgivings get swept away once one hears what measures Rolling Stone Managing Editor Giles Muhame considers reasonable in “fighting homosexuality.” The malice he and other Ugandan public figures display make the efforts of David Kato’s allies something that conscientious viewers need to support.
The two female leads are the titular “Facing Mirrors” referenced in Negar Azarbayjani’s moving debut feature. Their unexpected friendship becomes more amazing given the characters’ divergent backgrounds.
Poor devout Rana supports her household by operating an illegal taxi service. Rich transgender Adineh (aka Eddie) (a riveting Shayesteh Irani) awaits a passport which will allow her to get a sex change operation and escape a forced arranged marriage. When an escape from aggressive creeps throws both women together, their initial distrust and hatred eventually changes into a relationship altering both Rana’s and Eddie’s lives.
Given that “Facing Mirrors” is the first Iranian film with a transgender protagonist, the danger exists that Eddie may become little more than a feature-length PSA for transgender acceptance. Irani’s excellent performance elides that danger. Eddie is alternately charming, stressed, and well aware of the importance of her flight. Instead of being a pitiful victim, she’s considered and accepted the consequences of prospective self-exile from Iran.
Azarbayjani’s film proves superior to Hollywood’s usual attempts to dramatize social problems. Both Eddie and Rana are morally imperfect. Eddie relies on deception to achieve a measure of freedom. Rana’s evolving relationship with Eddie doesn’t lead to her accepting other sexual minorities. More importantly, “Facing Mirrors” proves courageous enough to accept the negative results of its main characters’ actions.
Azerbayjani may not offer answers to Iran’s current transphobic attitudes. But her emotionally honest drama offers a good starting point for discussion.
Kieran Turner’s documentary “Jobriath A.D.” portrays an unjustly forgotten gay musician as part Christ-like martyr.
Musical prodigy Bruce Wayne Campbell left Pennsylvania to reinvent himself as “Hair” actor Jobriath Salisbury. When powerful rock promoter Jerry Brandt made the young man his protégé, the latter saw Brandt’s involvement as magnificently launching his rock career. However, the young prodigy’s dreams of stardom were doomed by several factors, including being openly gay in a still highly homophobic America.
The film never leaves any doubt about Jobriath’s incredible talent. The young Campbell created the first movement of a symphony at age 15. His musical career ranged from rock to musical theatre to Tin Pan Alley standards. Excerpted rock performances effortlessly mix glam rock visuals with sexual openness.
Yet it seemed cosmically sadistic that Jobriath’s gifts seemed overshadowed by personal traumas. The mother he loved was emotionally unsupportive. Jobriath displayed signs of borderline schizophrenia. Brandt’s efforts on Jobriath’s behalf led to malicious gossip and critical backlash that mixed homophobia with hatred of the musician’s promoter.
The most compelling of the film’s interviewees is the still fame-hungry Brandt. Can his rationalizations and remembrances be taken at face value? Or is he still escaping responsibility for Jobriath’s aborted rock career?
Animated sequences offer silent commentary on Jobriath’s life. But writer Lewis Shiner’s phrase “Steam Engine Time” provides the best description of Jobriath’s rock contributions. That titular time describes the moment of intersection between an innovation’s arrival and the presence of an audience able to appreciate that innovation. Turner’s film ensures that time has now arrived for this forgotten prodigy .
(“Call Me Kuchu” screens at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF) on June 19, 2012 at 7:00 PM. “Facing Mirrors” screens at the Castro Theatre on June 18, 2012 at 6:30 PM. “Jobriath A.D.” screens at the Victoria Theatre (2961 16th Street, SF) on June 19, 2012 at 9:30 PM. Advance tickets to these films can be obtained via www.frameline.org .)