Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012: 'Color of the Ocean' + 'Call Me Kuchu'

Color of the Ocean (2011)

In two films at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York, African refugees struggle for a better life on a deceptively idyllic island, and activists oppose homophobia in Uganda.

Color of the Ocean (Die Farbe des Ozeans)

Director: Maggie Peren
Cast: Sabine Timoteo, Hubert Koundé, Álex González
Rated: NR
Studio: Telepool GMBH
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-23 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

Call Me Kuchu

Director: Katherine Fairfax Wright, Malika Zouhali-Worrall
Cast: John "Long Jones" Abdallah Wambere
Rated: NR
Studio: Chicken And Egg Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-28 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York)

On the powdery white beaches of the Canary Islands, a German tourist is shocked to find a boatload of African migrants washed up in a tiny boat. Many are dead, and the living are barely that. The tourist, Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo), goes running for water to help a Congolese man, Zola (Hubert Koundé) and his fading son. But by the time she’s back, emergency crews have arrived and a tag from her bag that lists her phone number is missing. Corpses are zipped into body bags and survivors are trucked off to a detention camp. Nathalie goes back to her luxury hotel, where she waits for her boyfriend to arrive from the mainland. At the camp, Zola tries to puzzle out how to make his way to the mainland everybody else seems so eager to escape.

Maggie Peren’s nearly too topical refugee drama, Color of the Ocean (Die Farbe des Ozeans) paints a simple story in rich colors. Screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York on 23 and 24 June, the film contrasts Nathalie's startled, genuine good-heartedness with the harsh judgmentalism of her opposite, José (the excellent Álex González), a patrolman who has yet to meet an African whom he trusts. A native of what looks to be a none-too-prosperous island community, José is busy dealing with real life while Nathalie is playing Good Samaritan in her off time. José has a caterwauling junkie of a sister -- her voice is the first of the film, screaming at him to let her into his room -- creates a too easy parallel between his exhaustion with helping her and his distrust of the needful refugees.

As Nathalie finds herself further enmeshed in Zola’s plotting to avoid deportation, José is pulled closer and closer to a more humanitarian view of the world, one that resembles hers. Again, the film isn’t subtle about pushing José in this direction. The elemental nature of Nathalie's story -- with storm-tossed boat people, those magic-seeming beaches, and everyone's primal need for safety and security -- doesn't lend itself to a more minimal approach. But the characters are too often caught up in what seems a Manichean dichotomy, flipping from good to bad, altruistic to selfish, in strokes too broad.

Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worral’s Call Me Kuchu, on the other hand, uses broad strokes effectively. The protagonists in this documentary about the fight over gay rights in Uganda are split down the good and bad divide. On one side, the film -- which screens 28 June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York and 20 and 22 June at Silverdocs celebrates heroes like activist David Kato, murdered in 2011. As the movie tells his story, Kato was a good-humored sort with the lilting smile of the trickster, who experienced relative acceptance in South Africa, where there is at least some form of an out gay community. He returned home to Uganda in order to combat the homophobic hatred that continues to make his homeland infamous around the world, co-founding Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) in 2004. On the other side leans, giggling, Giles Muhame, editor of the tabloid Rolling Stone, best known for publishing the photos of “homos” with headlines like “Hang Them.”

Call Me Kuchu (2012)

The ongoing situation in Uganda is almost as fascinating as it is horrific, given the vituperative level of anti-gay violence, a level that includes David Bahati's proposal in Parliament of what's been called the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” (and also, the "Kill the Gays bill"), in 2009 and again, in February of this year. Call Me Kuchu provides a brief timeline of events in Uganda (Box Turtle Bulletin's more comprehensive timeline can be found here), noting the appearance in Uganda of American evangelicals, including Scott Lively, whose efforts to spread paranoia, fear, and comprehensive hatred among their congregants.

It’s unlikely that Uganda was introduced to this sort of overwhelming intolerance by so-called First Worlders. Surely, intolerance and violence existed in Uganda before the evangelicals landed, but the Americans brought visibility, organization, and money to the movement. While Call Me Kuchu might have provided more research and more story, the work by Fairfax Wright and Zouhali-Worral is rewarding. Kato’s gentle fierceness is put to the test in several scenes where the ugly atmosphere begins to curdle towards violence, and other gay men and women interviewed here recall similar experiences. Kato functions here like a rallying troop leader, authoritatively gathering his fellow activists in safe spaces where they try to strengthen themselves to face a coldhearted outside world. In a situation where a preacher feels no compunction about standing up at a gay man's funeral and letting loose with a homophobic broadside, and the "Kill the gays bill" continues to wend its way toward passage, being out can be a revolutionary act.


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