There is a scene in The Pearl of Africa (2016, directed by Jonny von Wallström) in which the film's transsexual heroine watches the news as her country, Uganda, passes a bill outlawing homosexuality in a way that will surely get most gay people executed. This scene provided me with a dark shock of recognition. Watching it, I felt again how I felt on the morning of November 9, 2016, when I realized that I had awakened into a world that is now more hostile and inimical to my continued ability to live a full and happy life. I was reminded, not for the first time, that American evangelical leaders were the architects of Uganda's "kill the gays" bill, only now colored by the realization that these same genocidal "Christians" had ascended to the top of the American system thanks to this election cycle. Uganda was a proving ground. Now we move to the main event. Now we see if they can implement such a thing in America. Now there is no other United States to intervene to save us.
In the film, Cleopatra Kambugu and her husband, Nelson leave Uganda for Thailand to pursue Cleopatra's surgery. At its most basic level, The Pearl of Africa is a transition narrative, and like most such narratives made by cisgender filmmakers, this one has a morbid fascination with the process of gender reassignment. Unlike most such films, this one has a deeper political context. Cleopatra's surgery has practical imperatives: she wants to force Uganda to put a female gender marker on her passport, making it safer for her to travel. She wants to live a quiet life with her husband and have that relationship validated. She wants to make things better for the trans people who come after her. For all that, she becomes an exile. Secondary to this narrative is the story of her relationship with Nelson, which is not something you can find in other similar films. Nelson is obviously in love with Cleopatra, and the act of partnering with her is as radical an act as Cleopatra's own resistance to the the unfairness heaped upon her. We almost never see transgender people partnered in film, let alone happily partnered. We see more of Nelson's point of view at the end of the film when Cleopatra is recovering than we do of hers. There's a certain naive optimism in their relationship and it's a more valuable depiction of the lives transgender people than just another film about the process of transition.
Director Jonny von Wallström constructs the film using the techniques of fiction filmmaking. As a formal object, this is a kind of documentary I like: one that trusts its B-roll and forgoes the usual crutches of talking heads or expository text cards. This is non-fiction that plays like a movie rather than as journalism, which is all to the good. Von Wallström composes the frame throughout for aesthetic impact. It's endlessly watchable. Von Wallström is creative with his editing choices, too. He cuts his film out of chronological order, preferring, rather, a stream of consciousness meditation on love and gender.
I wish The Pearl of Africa wasn't as obsessed with Cleopatra's surgery. Like many transgender documentaries, it casts "The Surgery" as a holy grail trans people pursue at the expense of all else. I wish this didn't open with an early a shot of Cleopatra putting on make-up. These are tropes and cliches that serve as fodder for many more documentaries than this one and reinforce the idea that gender identity is constructed rather than innate. This is all sure to put a cis audience on familiar footing, and I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing right now. Maybe a little of both.
Less familiar are the shots of the gay community in Uganda banding together behind walls topped with razor wire. I hate the idea that these images are prophetic--coming soon to a neighborhood near you--but they might be. This film is at its best when it focuses on the small things that define loving relationships. The way Nelson holds Cleopatra's hand in the recovery room, for instance. Or way they both interact with each other in the manner of an old married couple. These humanize them both in ways the surgical stuff doesn't. I don't mean to downplay or cast shade on Cleopatra's choices and journey--bully for her for getting it done against the odds, I say--but I'm more interested in watching Nelson puzzle over how to buy a train ticket in Thailand or the two of them taking pictures of themselves at the magic hour. These scenes find profound beauty in the humanity of their subjects, and if a film like this has any purpose at all, finding humanity in what it observes is surely it. The sight of Cleopatra's face, lifted to the rising sun, is an indelible portrait of just such a humanity.
Side note: this post will be published on Novemeber 20th, 2016. This is Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance memorializing the trans people lost to violence during the past year. This year has seen a record number of murders among my community, mostly poor women of color, but not exclusive to them. The number of trans people lost to suicide is significant and uncounted. Two of my own friends died at their own hands this year. This will likely get worse going forward. If you have a mind, please send a donation to Trans Lifeline, a suicide prevention service for trans people. The life you save might even be mine.
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