Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall on Call Me Kuchu
In 2009, a bill was proposed in the Ugandan parliament that would outlaw homosexuality, making the offense punishable by death. In response, the newspaper The Rolling Stone began outing members of the LGBT community with the headline “Hang Them.” The LGBT activist David Kato, the first openly gay man in the rapidly anti-gay nation of Uganda, took the publication to court to prevent them from further printing the names and pictures of gay people — and won.
Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worral’s remarkable documentary Call Me Kuchu chronicles the brave battles of Kato and his comrades, as they very publicly seek to protect their human rights and their lives, while at the same time their “lifestyle” is about to be made a hanging offense. A first-time film by LA-based Fairfax Wright (a former producer) and New York-based Zouhali-Worrall (a British news reporter and videographer), Call Me Kuchu is a moving and inspirational piece of nonfiction filmmaking that provides a very necessary window on the events in Uganda, where things have subsequently deteriorated. Last year, Kuchu won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and Hot Docs, and Fairfax Wright and Zouhali-Worrall were selected for this magazine’s “25 New Faces” list on the strength of their film.
Portions of the following interview was originally conducted for Fairfax Wright and Zouhali-Worrall’s “25 New Faces” profile, which can be read here. Call Me Kuchu is released theatrically through Docurama/Cindegm today.
Filmmaker: How did you two first meet and join together on this project?
Fairfax Wright: We met in New York at a bar. I was sitting at the bar and a sweet, young British lady came up to me saying, “Are you waiting for Valentina also?” and I said, “Yes.” And we struck up a conversation, and we just happened to both be waiting for our friends, just kind of became friends through that and we realized we had a similar worldview and a respect for each other’s work. We met up a couple times after that, just as friends, and then Malika contacted me maybe a year and a half later saying she was interested in doing a film in Uganda and wanted to bring another person on board and did I have any interest. I wrote back saying that yes and [if] she was intending to make a film about [homosexuality in Uganda] — because I had been following the issue also — if that was in fact what she wanted to do then it sounded great. So then within about two weeks or so we were on planes to Kampala. We didn’t know what the [political] climate was like really at that point and we didn’t know how it was going to be changing and how quickly, so we just decided to get over there as soon as possible.
Filmmaker: So this was all on your own initiative and your own dime?
Fairfax Wright: Yeah we had no funding at all and very little savings. But luckily I already had a camera and Malika had already done a good amount of the research and we really didn’t need much. We just had to pick up some sound equipment and jerry rig together some sort of rig — so I didn’t have to everything completely handheld — and some hard drives. You know, basic purchases. And then we just bought the tickets from our own wallets and then decided to go back over there. It wasn’t until we came home and were able to edit scenes together and start to give people a sense of what we had captured that we started applying for a lot of grants. Then eventually Chicken and Egg gave us their “I believe in you” grant, which was really special. [laughs] It felt really great after. It was really wonderful to get that first money and then once we got that it was much easier, grants started to come in a little more regularly after that.
Zouhali-Worrall: I think she cried when [we heard] we had got that grant.
Filmmaker: Had either of you actually been to Uganda before this point?
Zouhali-Worrall: Well, one of the first things we’d bonded over when we first met in that bar actually was the fact that both of us had lived and worked and traveled in central and eastern Africa and Katy also in western Africa a bit, so we were generally interested in the region. And then we just started paying more attention to their LGBT issues and specifically, we heard this story about this transgender LGBT rights activist who had basically sued the Ugandan attorney general for police harassment. About the same time we heard about all these sodomy laws that were in place in the region in general and we were intrigued to learn more about this country where on the one hand, the activist could actually win these constitutional rights cases in the courts but on the other hand [gay people] were being persecuted by the laws on the books. And then this anti-homosexuality bill was introduced and that made it really clear that we had to go there. Before we even traveled, we spoke with David Kato — who became the protagonist of the film — by phone, mainly just for research purposes. He told us that we should come, and then we went over there. That first trip was just a two-week research shoot, and during that time David introduced us to the whole community. We did some observational filming after we gained people’s trust a little, but it was a lot of helping us figure out who we want to draw out as the main characters in subsequent shoots.
Fairfax Wright: We basically just filmed with anyone that was willing to let us turn the camera on them and we just shot morning noon and night. When we got home, we started going through it all so we had a stronger sense of who had the best stories to tell and who had the right dynamic character on screen. Because David ended up passing away before we had gotten all the footage we wanted were planning long shoots, specifically following David’s work right when he died, we actually ended up never doing that shoot with him, and that shoot ended up being following the rest of the community in the wake of his death. Because of that, we really had to mine that first shoot’s footage a little more than we originally thought we would because so much of his story all of our big interviews were done during that first shoot.
Zouhali-Worrall: Even though we filmed with him about as much everyone else, we actually kind of thought of him as a fixer at that point. He was introducing us to people and giving us telephone numbers and so on. It wasn’t until we kind of we were looking over the footage after that [we saw] he was kind of the most interesting and incredible person we had met so far. It was at that point we realized he was actually the main character of the film.
Filmmaker: You can’t really go into a situation as complex as that with a preconceived idea about what the film is going to be, who the protagonist is going to be, what the art if going to be. You just need to find that as you go along.
Zouhali-Worrall: Definitely, yeah. To a certain extent, before we went we had written out — just to focus us and think about themes and the types of characters we might be looking for we — had written a treatment, which was all based on speaking to people like David on the phone and having read up about [the situation] in the news. It’s interesting that there are elements that were in that initial treatment that I think ended up in the final film, so it was as much to kind of focus our attention as anything else. But ultimately we just had to go with the flow and follow whatever happened as it happened.
Fairfax Wright: It was also really important to us that we didn’t just want to make a survey film and make a big checklist of all the players in this movement and have even balance between anti-gay and pro-gay voices. We really wanted it to be character driven, not just because stylistically that’s our method but because that’s what we thought was going to be most useful in terms of having a tool to legitimize these people’s human rights in the eyes of the viewer. We wanted people to be drawn in by their humanism, because that was going to convince people of their human rights. We really wanted things like the antagonist of the film, which is the guy Giles, the managing editor of The Rolling Stone, to come organically from the narrative rather than just pick a bad guy out of the blue. It wasn’t until David brought that lawsuit against The Rolling Stone that we ended up filming with The Rolling Stone. It was important for us to maintain the organic sense of things.
Filmmaker: What did you want the film to achieve? Was it simply documenting what was going on or did you see this as activist filmmaking?
Zouhali-Worrall: Definitely from the beginning there was an obvious sense for both of us that we were aware of this severe injustice and one way to address that injustice would be to document it. We don’t necessarily see ourselves as activist, but we just feel that films that can help you relate to people in these situations can become incredibly useful tools in advocacy. So we knew from the beginning there was no point in making a film on such an important issue if we weren’t going to think about how to actually use that film beyond festival or beyond theatrical distribution to enable change. I think both of us first and foremost would definitely describe ourselves as filmmakers rather than activists, but that being said from the moment we started researching this film we’ve been talking to activists all the time. Human Rights Watch was the first organization we were taking to since we’ve been researching the film and we’ve been talking with them over the past few years. It was more a sense [that] there was strong partnerships in place so by the time the film was finished it could have somewhere to go; we knew we had to be speaking to people who were activists and knew what they were doing.
Filmmaker: Is this the first time either of you have worked so closely with one person?
Fairfax Wright: It’s the first time I worked with only one person this closely this long. Any film is a long road so whoever you’re with as team, it’s a close partnership. In terms of just one on one, this is definitely the closest I’ve been for — I mean now it’s two and half years. Not only that, we’ve been traveling, [doing] whatever we could possibly do to save money. A lot of these people [in Uganda] live in very small houses but we wanted to stay with members of the community whenever possible because that was just the way—it made gaining intimate access easier. Already half your job is done because you are with them, you don’t have to be contacting all the time and find out where they’re going to be and getting invited and getting transport from your hotel to there. It was just much easier to stay with them. Anyway the result is that for weeks on weeks on end we have shared beds. I mean, there are probably whole weeks where we haven’t been more than six feet away from each other the whole time, save for the times when Malika runs off to get me a sack of milk while filming [laughs] or to get a signature from a judge to film, or something like that. We’ve really been working in very, very close settings.
Another thing that I think is a incredibly fortunate [is that] before we went [to Uganda], we knew each other and had a mutual respect for each other. [And] I can’t remember one single real disagreement on anything creative that we’ve had. We just happen to agree on how things should look and feel and sound.
Zouhali-Worrall: I think usually the rare times when we do disagree it’s about something creative. It will usually be the case of like how hard someone pushes. And then if someone pushes slightly harder than the other than the other one will be like, “Okay, that’s important to you, so that’s fine.” But it’s been really interesting and, as Katy said, super lucky. It’s true we really didn’t notice it until really recently about how, even in the editing process, there was not much disagreement at all.
Filmmaker: What would you say was the hardest or sort of most difficult moment of the film? Did you ever feel you were in danger?
Zouhali-Worrall: Personally [not], although given that Katy and I are attached at the hip, I suspect it might also be the case for her. I think the hardest [moment] was a week or so after David [died]. We visited with David’s mother, who we’d filmed with while David was alive and it was a scene in the film that’s very jubilant and happy — it’s basically a happy Saturday afternoon at this mom’s house and everyone’s having a great time. Two weeks after his death, we visited his mom with two other characters from the film and that was probably the toughest shooting experience of everything by far because she was incredibly distraught. The two people we were with were with were very close. And we were distraught and Katy was also trying to run two cameras at once, which obviously is never going to be easy. We had to sort of sit there and watch the mother of someone who had become a good friend of ours trying to deal with the idea of his death.
Fairfax Wright: But in terms of safety in general we never felt terribly threatened because, despite its problems, Uganda has a pretty strong sense of freedom of the press, and then there’s also a certain amount of freedom that you’re given as a foreigner traveling there. They’re just accustomed to the idea of foreign journalists poking their head in things and documenting what they feel is important. Nobody seems to have any desire to stop us in our tracks or anything. If I ever felt scared it was only because I felt we might get caught in the crossfire. I never thought we would be directly targeted. And that fear of being caught in crossfire was really only during our very last shoot. Right after David’s death, we were staying in a member of the [LGBT] community’s house with another half a dozen members of the community who had come from out of town. I felt if anyone got wind of that we would be sitting ducks, but luckily that never happened.
Filmmaker: What was the definition of your roles on the film? Katy, you were the d.p. as well and Malika, you were the producer. So was directing a very fluid thing?
Zouhali-Worrall: Katy also edited it as well.
Fairfax Wright: I think to some extent I feel like neither of us directed the film. I don’t know where the directing came in, because we were always so busy editing or shooting or producing. I think the directing was somewhere squished in between all of those [tasks], which is kind of what a director is, a bit of everything. It depended on the shoot. Some days were super crazy; I think Malika had less headspace to think about how we should be framing a shot and I had no headspace to think about where we going next or why we were even shooting this interview. In a lot of ways, we made up for what the other person couldn’t be thinking about at that moment, and that worked pretty well.