With the recent death of Cameroon Gay Icon Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, Born This Way comes at an opportune moment as the country’s homophobia escalates into further violence perpetuated by vigilante gangs, causing some gay activists to flee abroad; and perhaps serves as a fitting testament to the artist who was imprisoned for three years for telling a Government Official he was in love with him.
The documentary, recently shown at the newly named Flare, the BFI’s LGBT film festival, and directed by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, gives us 84 minutes of what it is like to live in Cameroon if you are gay. Or, if you are a man and seem slightly effeminate, or, if you are a woman and seem slightly masculine- all crimes punishable by prison sentences if the police, your employers, local community or even family suspect you of practicing homosexual activities.
With a passing nod to Roger Jean-Claude Mbede [whose family are being taken to court for refusing him treatment for testicular cancer because of his sexuality], we are introduced to young gays as they struggle with all the normal trials and joys of human relationships that everyone else does, except with the added pressure that how and with whom they are choosing to ‘make love’ is illegal, and can come with a death threat attached. Focusing on Alternatives Cameroun in Doula, the only centre in the country offering a HIV/Aids prevention program, and, as the government turns a blind eye and as long as they are discrete, a ‘safe haven’ where gay people can congregate and be open, the film gives us an idea of how religion and community beliefs [it’s popular to believe that being gay is a result of witchcraft for example] uphold the country’s homophobia.
At the Q&A session an audience member poignantly asked one of the activists and participants, now currently in the UK until January, what could be done to help reduce homophobia and ‘change minds’? The reply was, until the anachronistic punitive law Section 347 is revoked, there couldn’t be change.
The documentary itself is a feat of courage. In Cameroon filmmakers cannot film without a permit and upon application, Kadlec and Tallmann were told an observer would accompany them at all times. That being impossible, the filmmakers went undercover, and still managed to get first hand accounts and interviews with those affected by 347, hugely compromising their own safety. Although the piece might suffer through it’s inability to film openly or talk to those who are homophobic, it makes up for it by showing us a cross section of those opposed to and fighting the anti -gay laws, including lawyer Alice Nkom, who, during the film, moves two frightened gay women from their village where they under threat and facing a court case, to the ‘safe house’ of the Alternatives Centre.
Indeed journeys serve as an apt metaphor for the film. Cedric finds the walk back to his house every night a terrifying event, for fear of being attacked- his greater journey still, is to come out to his mother. Another young woman, Gertrude, finally makes the nerve racking trek to the nunnery where she was brought up to out herself to her Mother Superior. And the taxi journey for one of the gay women being moved by Alice Nkom, is filled with trepidation. Although there is a camera crew present, the taxi driver’s questions about being gay insinuate that had she been alone, there might have been more reason to be afraid for her safety.
Overall though, this is a film about hope and courage. It’s a portrait of a small secretive community struggling to survive and teach new ways of thinking. In a country where its inhabitant are following the actions of homophobes in Russia, taking it upon themselves to arrest or murder those suspected of being gay, it’s a document of a courageous community trying to find a voice in a deeply religious and traditional society.
At a time when the UK has finally embraced same sex marriage, it’s a pertinent reminder of how others in Cameroon, Nigeria, Russia, are still fighting for their rights. With the young of Cameroon calling for even tougher sanctions against those who are gay, we can only hope that Born This Way can at last open a dialogue between the country’s president, Paul Biya, who, having nearly absolute power, has the ability to revoke the homophobic laws, and the public. If that happens, then Born This Way can pave the way to reeducation, dispelling some of the common myths that homosexuality is a Western import, the work of the devil and contagious.