Skip to main content

Being Gay in Cameroon- Born This Way- a documentary by Shaun Kadlec & Deb Tullmann

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…

A Man of Good Hope: review

“The ability to have someone tell your story is so important. It says you know I was here.” Maya Angelou It’s a piece of musical theatre about having hope. It’s an urgent work which speaks of age old global phenomenons such as migration and life as a persecuted refugee. The term refugee has been part of the western world’s history since the persecution of protestants in France in 1540, the term migrant is biblical. The book upon which the show is based, an account of the life of Somali Asad Abdullahi who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was eight years old in Mogadishu during the civil war and who then fled across Africa as a boy and young man as a consequence, is in some ways so traumatic a read that the stage work has to offer more positivity than the title infers. 
In the Isango Ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May, with a little help from Stephen Daldry, the book, by Jonny Steinberg, has found the perfect stage partners. One feels that no other company could do this wor…

Safe House- art meets theatre at the Young Vic with Jeremy Herbert and Gabriella Sonabend

It starts with a journey down a narrow corridor, fist clenching wooden key.
‘Follow the yellow line’ the polite Usher says and I do, around the corner and into a foyer area, where I am met with a gust of wind from a machine that Jeremy Herbert, the designer, has created himself. As my hair blows and my cheeks and eyes are battered as if I am standing on top of a mountain, I am tempted to remain here, to continue to feel the gusts in my face and listen to the sound the wind makes. I don’t want anything else and I can’t hear anything else, only aware of a need to immerse myself in it, to let myself go in the rapid flashing lights that emanate from its surface. I’m one who craves aloneness and enjoys it all too well, but I am afraid that someone will come and disturb this brief relationship myself and the wind machine have struck up, or that my mind will interfere, the buzz of thoughts getting the better of me.. so I move on around the room, after all, there are four more ‘safes’, all a s…