Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York 2013: ‘Born This Way’ + ‘Camera/Woman’

[19 June 2013]

By Chris Barsanti

Why Not Be Pioneers?

Screening at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, Camera/Woman sets out to do what films in this tragically relevant Festival do best, that is, to highlight the struggle of oppressed peoples to retain some sense of identity. In the case of Karima Zoubir’s hour-long documentary, the subject is Khadija, living in a particularly debilitating situation that’s by no means unique.

Divorced and raising her son Hamid, Khadija lives with her family in Casablanca. She makes what living she can as a photographer and videographer for wedding parties. The work doesn’t seem to provide much of an income, as both her clients and manager appear perfectly aware of Khadija’s limited choices and take advantage of her repeatedly. Still, she’s lucky that brides are increasingly asking for female photographers, seeking their own fleeting escapes from the judgmental eyes of the men who have traditionally performed the job.

Khadija herself feels judged at home, where her parents and siblings all regularly denounce her for bringing shame on their household, a household in which she appears to be the sold breadwinner. And neighbors have spotted her returning home alone from her job in the dark of the night, as the parties often don’t break up until well after midnight. The film indicates that their gossip is hurtful, seeming to confirm her family’s concerns.

When she’s at work, the wedding parties are riots of dancing and music, seamed with the glitter of elaborate costumes and the complicated lattice of henna tattooing on all the guests’ hands and arms. Khadjia slips in between the celebrants, a quiet and slightly mournful figure amidst all the colorful excitement. Her only other comfort, besides Hamid, comes from her best friend and bawdy fellow divorcée Borucha, who regularly comes by to revive Khadija’s spirits, encouraging her to ignore her family’s too familiar, conservative handwringing.

These scenes suggest the complexity of Khadia’s experience, but Camera/Woman doesn’t do much with the material. It remains removed from Khadija’s subjective experience, as she doesn’t reveal her feelings about the work or her place in the world. This even as the camera keeps closely focused on Khadija; while we understand her family and neighbors’ disapproval, we don’t see much of the world beyond her block, and so don’t see how her experience reflects, affects, or is affected by others in Morocco or elsewhere.

Born This Way (2013)

Born This Way (2013)

This tight focus makes its own point, too, echoing Khadia’s isolation, the limits imposed on her by convention and by law. Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullman’s Born This Way, screening 21 and 22 June at the Festival, tracks another longstanding and institutionalized oppression in Cameroon. Here more people are arrested for the “crime” of homosexuality than in any other country in the world. As the documentary explores the effects of such ongoing prosecution (three to five years is a typical sentence), it makes clear the outrage of the situation, that their offense is defined as the victims’ very being, not any acts they might commit.

Born This Way finds its center at a clinic in the sprawling port city of Douala that serves as a kind of community center for the local gay and lesbian community. One sign of the nation’s vehement homophobia is that many faces in the clinic are blurred in order to protect their identities. The film underlines as well the siege mentality that so many LGBT people have been forced to adopt. Cedric, a clinic worker who maintains his smile despite such difficulty, worries early on just about running the gauntlet of self-righteous bullies who wait outside the entrance to a gay nightclub. One look at his dismayed face after a gang of these men follows him home and leaves a threatening note makes it difficult to imagine he will ever be happy or safe living in Cameroon.

His courage and his fear are paralleled by those of Gertrude, a small, bespectacled, and deeply religious woman who, in a different world, might have happily ended up in a convent. Years before, the film reveals, she was the victim of a homophobic assault that left one of her companions dead and another paralyzed. Now Gertrude speaks forthrightly about gay Cameroonians like her and Cedric needing to move constantly, to keep their neighbors from guessing their identities. “Maybe we’ll up end in the sea,” she jokes mordantly.

Gertrude’s sense of humor provides the film with some bright sparks, as when she comes out to the Mother Superior at her old convent school. Lawyer Alice Nkom offers another sort of resistance. Traveling to a village in the hinterlands to defend a lesbian couple accused as well of being practicing witches, Nkom fights to not only to keep the women out of jail, but also to protect them from being lynched.

Like Call Me Kuchu, which screened at last year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival and is now open in US theaters, Born This Way illuminates a seemingly intractable problem. In the face of so much violence and fear, it’s hard enough to imagine gay men and women in Cameroon ever gaining even a fraction of the rights assumed by straight citizens. But as Cedric bravely points out, there is always the possibility of change. “Why not,” he asks, “be pioneers in this country?”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/172707-human-rights-watch-film-festival-new-york-2013-born-this-way-cameraw/