Friday, June 22, 2012

The Banality of Evil

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs and Andreas and Ashley over at Pussy Goes Grrr (who I've been neglecting to mention; please accept my apologies, guys. My bad.).

I'm going to a Gay Pride celebration in St. Louis this weekend. I have mixed feelings about this because even here in the Midwest, in an ostensibly "red" state, Gay Pride celebrations have largely ceased being about politics or a struggle for rights. They've been tamed. They're "family" events now. They've mostly been co-opted to sell a hip young demographic alcohol or cell phones or whatever. Oh, there will be booths dedicated to politics, sure, but I'll cringe at the drag show (as I always do), I'll chafe at the bemused toleration of my own letter(s) in the GLBT alphabet soup, I'll gripe about the fact that the Stonewall riots happened in June rather than some more temperate month, and I'll come home, once again, wondering why I went in the first place. Things are not so rosy elsewhere in the world, however, and if I ever need a reminder of why these events are important, I need only think of the lot of GLBT people in sub-Sahara Africa, who are struggling to assert their own pride in who they are, and who are under constant threat. I should think of Uganda in particular, where the legislature has been toying with the passage of a bill that would make homosexuality punishable by death. The lot of gays and lesbians in Uganda is the subject of Call Me Kuchu (2012, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall), a documentary that mostly focuses on the work of David Kato, who founded Uganda's first gay rights organization.

If you've followed the story of Uganda's anti-gay pogrom, you may have heard of David Kato. He was murdered in early 2011 after he sued the country's most prominent paper, The Rolling Stone (no relation to the American magazine), for publishing photos of him and outing him to the world as a gay man. His case put a kibosh on the paper's practice of outing "homos" (as their headlines screamed). The filmmakers met Kato before this, though, and followed the entire process of his lawsuit and of the operation of his fledgling movement. It listens to his friends and gets to know them a little. The movie offers a portrait of life in Uganda, too, to put everything it shows into some kind of context. Kato was killed mid-shoot, and the footage from his funeral is among the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen in a movie.

Kato, in life, was a gregarious and intelligent man who had an obvious passion for improving the lot of gays and lesbians in a country that hates them. The filmmakers are nothing if not even handed, though. They give equal time to Kato's principle nemesis, Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone. Muhame is a smiling demagogue who can publish photographs of gays and lesbians under a headline that reads "Hang Them!" and provides the addresses of the individuals in the photos and still say to the camera, without any apparent guile, that he's not inciting violence, he's just doing his job as a journalist. His paper's stance is that homosexuals are a threat, and he's doing work that's in the public's interest. The movie doesn't implicate Muhame in Kato's death except by association, but Muhame doesn't seem overly troubled by it, either. Nor should he. The writing is on the wall when the movie shows Uganda's delegation to the UN snickering during Kato's speech there.

I think everyone involved was frankly astonished when Kato won his lawsuit, given the country's legal climate, but he lost in the end. The movement he founded, maybe won a little, but that's small comfort for the martyr himself, his grieving mother, or his friends, who endured at his funeral a cleric who got wind of Kato's activism and turned his funeral into a harangue about how Kato would be going to hell and how awful all of his friends are. He refused to bury the man. As this unfolded on screen, my mouth was hanging open in shock. This man calls himself a Christian? I have a bleak view of that religion these days, though this is mollified a little by the depiction of Kato's one ally in the church, an Anglican bishop who is himself under fire for supporting the rights of gays. Call Me Kuchu isn't afraid to name the names of other "good Christians," though, and it points its finger directly at American evangelicals like Scott Lively and Richard Cohen, who have incited the anti-gay sentiment in Uganda and who are theoretically using Uganda as a dry run for pogroms against gays and lesbians elsewhere (in the United States, perhaps, at some point in the future). Kato's funeral was beyond the pale. And to see Giles Muhame giggle a little on camera after the fact is to stare into the face of the appalling, mind-shattering banality of evil.

The movie offers a bit of grace, though, which is a mercy after everything that came before it. It's not all a sucking horror. At the wake that followed the funeral, the various attendees join in to sing along with The Melodians' version of "Rivers of Babylon," which takes on the same kind of weight of meaning for them as the civil rights movement drew from Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." They change the lyrics a little to pay tribute to their departed friend. It's a profoundly moving scene in a profoundly moving film.

Call Me Kuchu - Trailer from Call Me Kuchu on Vimeo.

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