The silhouettes of two women are concealed amongst the gradients of quivering candlelight. The interviewer asks, “Can you kiss each other in public?”, one women responds “We hug each other in public. Even the hugs are discreet. But kiss on the mouth? No.” The other adds: “People would yell at us ‘Ooh lesbians. You can’t do that in Cameroon! You’ve ruined the country!’” Due to the maintenance and amendment (1972) of Section 347 of the Penal Code of 1967, imposed during colonial times, Cameroon, according to a Human Rights Watch report ‘Guilty by Association’ of March 2013, is a country that “prosecutes people for consensual same-sex conduct more aggressively than almost any country in the world.” Adding, “Most cases are marked by grave human rights violations, including torture, forced confessions, denial of access to legal council, and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement and judicial officials.”
The debut feature length documentary “Born This Way”, co-directed and co-produced by long term friends and collaborators Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, has used Duoala, Cameroon to explore how this homophobia and hatred towards the LGBTI community manifests in the lives of its protagonists. Here’s a trailer:
The simple mode of filming unravels the multifaceted battleground that is being played out on the bodies and minds of its subjects without judgement or attack, but in an articulation of neutrality. The film’s two primary protagonists Cédric and Gertrude are filmed in a series of intimate portraits that capture the honesty of the everyday, with a transparency and realism that neither polishes or exaggerates, but a lens that bares quiet witness. The structure of the documentary is constructed and led by the willingness of its characters to reveal and tell their stories as it unfurls organically. After filing for a permit to shoot a documentary on HIV/AIDS prevention Kadlec and Tullmann were told to be granted this permit, they would have to have a government official with them at all times. Instead they filmed illegally on a tourist visa which has resulted in a synthesis of methodology and content by recreating the criminalisation, forced secrecy and alienation its subjects experience.
A longingly held shot filmed on the path that connects the outside world and the inside of the Duoala headquarters of Alternatives-Cameroun, a sanctuary for the LGBTI community, depicts the passage between safety and danger. The centre operates, as a member explains, a provision “for people with HIV and we do HIV prevention.” The Health Ministry recognises it as a treatment centre, its functioning guise, for the centres undercover gay rights work. “[They] let it exist, but we have to be discreet. […] This is my family. It is a community.” The centre provides psychological support as well as throwing “amateur runways, dance parties and soccer matches.” On June the 26th, 2013, unidentified assailants burned down the Douala headquarters of Alternatives-Cameroun.
The unfiltered, humanist gaze of the camera illustrates a series of profound vignettes that exposes the chain of oppression – used throughout human history – with an extreme economy of means. The complex reality that the LGBTI community face: identification, ostracism, confiscation of civil liberties, persecution and subjection to violence – are concentrated into miniatures that resonate beyond their bounds. We meet Alice Nkom, the first woman to be called to the bar in Cameroon, who recently received an award from Amnesty International to recognise the decade she has spent defending people accused of ‘practising homosexuality’, as she shows her case files. She flicks through and stops, holding a photograph of two men, “They were arrested because they were dressed like this. They were just in a car, police stopped the car […] the police took a look in the car and said ‘Oh, there are gays here’. Five years in prison.”
To reveal a microcosm of the judicial dichotomies that are present in the struggle to acquire LGBTI rights and equality in Cameroon, the directors smuggled a hidden camera into a courtroom where two women were being tried for same-sex conduct. From the claustrophobic and trembling camera we see Nkom stand in defence of the two women as she opens, “Your Honor, you cannot justify a prosecution much less a conviction, based upon illegal text which violates the constitution.” The prosecution responds, “Your Honor, this is just like a fifty year old man kidnapping a ten year old girl, rapes her in his bedroom all night and says this is his private life.”
In another passage the two protagonists come together as Cédric describes how he was held at knife point by four men and threatened: “Faggot, you’re going to infect the neighbourhood. Get out of here. You’re a dead man.” Gertrude responds with generosity but also the acute reality, “Next time they won’t just let you go. You’re not safe there anymore. […] We’ll keep moving from place to place and where will we end up? Maybe we’ll end up in the sea.” As was the case for Eric Ohena Lembembe when he was found brutally tortured and murdered in his home on July 15th, 2013. A prominent LGBTI activist who had closely collaborated with Human Rights Watch and two other Cameroonian organisations, Alternatives-Cameroun and the Association for the Defence of Homosexuality (ADEFHO), in researching and launching the ‘Guilty by Association’ report.
In a scene that sits in opposition to the propagation of politicised, homophobic and ‘anti-gay’ rhetoric, exported by American evangelists to Africa, Gertrude – a practising Christian – goes to visit a Mother Superior who brought her up, to disclose her sexual orientation:
Gertrude: “Well it’s kind of a coming-out. A confession. I’m telling you because you’re my mother. Even more than a mother. I’ve kind of… like, discovered my sexual orientation. At first I didn’t accept it but I’ve decided to come and share this with you.”
Mother Superior: “We have to respect people, right? And respect their identity. What else can we do? Ok it is a surprise, but like I said, we have to respect people as they are. There is a moral side to it, and as a nun I take that into account. But there’s also what the person really is, what she thinks she is deep inside. And that’s up to her.”
“Born This Way” joins the 2012 documentary “Call Me Kuchu” and 2013’s “God Loves Uganda” in the increasing volume of discourse on LGBTI communities in Africa. The visibility and narratives coming from the LGBTI communities in these documentaries have achieved a nonpartisan dismissal of the idea that homosexuality, or gender/sexual spectrums, are ‘unafrican’. Their simple presence illustrates these identities and orientations as borderless, unfixed from specific time or place and hence its ‘foreignness’, rendered meaningless. Without any semblance of hatred or reprisal Cédric finalises, “We want to fight for the cause in our country we love. Why not be pioneers in this country?”
“Born This Way” screens during the Human Rights Watch film festival London on the 25th of March at the Ritzy Brixton, and the 26th at the Curzon Soho. Both screenings are followed by a discussion with the filmmaker Shaun Kadlec.