Radical acts of love
Director: Jonny von Wallström “I want to be able to wear a bikini and be in the sunshine. I want inner validation,” says Cleopatra Kambugu. She is on a train leaving Uganda after her photo appeared on the front page of a pernicious Kampala tabloid called Red Pepper, with the headline How We Became Homos. This in the same week that the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was passed, with clauses allowing for the death penalty.
She is fleeing to Kenya with her partner, Nelson Kasaija, and from there we will follow the couple to Thailand for her sex reassignment surgery, in part thanks to the success of Von Wallström’s web series, The Pearl of Africa , and a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the procedure.
Hers – and Nelson’s – is a hugely brave story. To live openly as a trans woman in a time of executions is radical. Nelson’s alliance and support are radical. But what the film – beautifully shot with plenty of breathing space – shows is that self-love is the most radical act of them all.
From joining a defiant queer vigil on the night the act is passed to enduring dislocation from her family and the physical pain of the surgery, Cleo is the trans story made personal. The love between her and Nelson shows the humanity behind the issues.
But – there’s always a but when a white westerner is in charge of a nuanced African story – one feels at times that Cleo is a specimen being studied because the director has not rooted the story in Ugandan society – save for fanatical homophobic rants on TV. Issues become simplified that way. The framing of Nelson has dodgy moments when it feels he is being voyeuristically intruded on. And there are other moments when Von Wallström intrudes – like his selection of Swedish singers for the score of an African story.
But he has made a brilliant film on a shoestring budget and through it Cleopatra has raised her powerful voice.
TRANSITIONS The fearless Cleopatra Kambugu AVANTIKA SEETH