Back in 1907, when Winston Churchill travelled across Uganda as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, he called the landlocked East African nation the “Pearl of Africa”. He described the country as being ‘fairy tale-like’ — lush, beautiful, complex, diverse, and radiant. Even today, Uganda lives up to its name, and is known for being a warm, friendly and safe country for tourists. And yet, ironically, this paradise does not seem to have room for its own homosexual people.
On February, 2014, under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, the government of Uganda passed the Anti-homosexuality Bill that in, its original form, proposed death penalty for homosexuals. The bill, which has over time come to be referred to as the ‘Kill Gays Bill’, calls for a life sentence for simply touching another person of the same sex with the intention of committing a homosexual act. The law also compels citizens to report ‘suspected’ homosexual activity to the police, triggering increased levels of prejudice, violence and discrimination against the gay community.
It is in this country that Cleopatra Kambugu, a transwoman — the subject of the movie Pearl of Africa — lives.
Created by Swedish filmmaker Jonny von Wallström, Pearl of Africa is a documentary film that takes us on a journey through the life of Cleopatra, Uganda’s first transgender woman to openly share her transformation. It shows how the 28-year-old, faced with threats from her countrymen, was forced to go into hiding and eventually flee the country with her fiancé, Nelson Kasaija.
In the film, Wallström focuses on Cleo’s relationship both with herself and her finacé, showing her resilience while surviving in a world where she is seen as an aberration. Their romance is frequently contrasted with interjections in the form of news segments introducing the anti-gay legislation.
“The struggle for LGBT rights here in East Africa is very particular to our conditions; we’re fighting in a whole different context. We don’t talk about sex in Africa, so breaking down the stigma of being lesbian, gay or bisexual is tough,” Cleo said in an interview with the Huck magazine.
The documentary begins by showing Cleo’s day-to-day life interspersed with sweeping shots of Uganda’s beautiful landscape and depictions of her vibrant social life. However, when a Ugandan tabloid outs her along with several others in a list of top 200 homosexuals in the country, her life is thrown into turmoil. As many others become victims of assault and violence, Cleo decides to go underground on a self-imposed house arrest. The human costs of homophobia and transphobia are laid bare for us to see.
The film succeeds in painting a vivid picture of Cleo’s strength and personality. She says, “I didn’t want it to focus on my victimhood or trivialize my reality. I wanted it to tell my story while also being able to talk about my resilience – I didn’t want to be portrayed as a weak person that needs to be saved.”
It was important to Wallström that the movie didn’t end up becoming a rhetoric on the bill, gender identities or even Cleo’s surgery. For him, it was supposed to a love story — one beyond colour and gender — and he has done an absolutely wonderful job creating it.
There is no drama or scripted dialogues; instead, we get raw emotions and the reality of Cleo and her fiancé’s worlds. Nelson’s shyness is evident as he makes contact with the camera, but it also shows his strength and commitment to stand by his love through their journey. When Cleo had to leave her family behind, Nelson was her backbone. He discusses how he was skeptical of the movie, but after several conversations, was finally convinced to be on board.
“We have learned from each other, and we have also learned what it means to be transgender. Through the movie we have met so many people – before, I had no contact with transgender or LGBT people. My lens was widened, and now I’m 100% on board,” he said in a conversation with Variety.
Music plays a great role in the film and the background score has strong lyrics that complement Cleo’s voice. “A lot of people tell me I’m so courageous,” she says. “But I just think, it’s life. When life throws you lemons, you eat the rinds. It just so happened that I was different.”
The film ends with her in Bangkok, where she was finally able to get her surgery through crowd-funding and financial support from Huffington Post. The couple now lives in Kenya, and Cleo works for an LGBTQ rights organization.
“Geographically, Kenya might be close to Uganda, but people here think differently when it comes to gender and sexuality. At home they have no idea; a transperson is a gay person who is just too fabulous,” she said in an interview.
Pearl of Africa leaves you with not just a love story or a journey through hardship, but with a social message. For the Ugandan community, the message speaks about those less-represented, and for the rest of the world, it is a story about Africa that does not revolve around poverty or AIDS. As the world continues its fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community, cinema stays one of the most important mediums to spread its message.