Organizing a queer film festival in Uganda —considered to be among the most dangerous places on earth to be queer — is a high-stakes, life-and-death matter that takes a special kind of nerve and skill.
“Imagine living in fear every day,” says 30-year-old Hassan Kamoga, primary organizer of the Queer Kampala International Film Festival. “People still live in fear of losing jobs, people still get attacked everyday. The situation is not good at all.”
The challenging human-rights environment Uganda’s LGBT community faces came more prominently to the fore after MP David Bahati began championing a so-called “Kill the Gays” bill in 2009 that initially included the death penalty. In December 2013, the Ugandan parliament passed a version of the bill with a minimum 14-year prison term and a promise to punish the “promotion” of homosexuality, as well as anyone who failed to report homosexual activities to police.
When a court later struck down the act, Kamoga and his friends hoped the legal victory might lead to a slightly more accepting environment, but it has not. In August, police raided a Pride celebration where attendees were beaten and at least a dozen were arrested.
For Kamoga, educating people in Uganda on these topics seems like an uphill battle. He sees film as a powerful weapon to break down barriers and challenge misconceptions.
“When you use film, you can reach out to a very large number of people and then that opens up channels for understanding,” Kamoga says of the festival, which will have its inaugural run from Dec 9–11.
Among the tight circle of volunteers working with him, some do not want to be identified as part of the festival’s crew. Kamoga says he was recognized and attacked at a previous event and routinely changes his name on social media to evade the incessant threats of violence and death.
“It’s a risky fight,” he admits. He has lost friends, some homophobic, others afraid of being associated with a prominent gay man. While his mother is supportive of his orientation and activism, she fears for his safety. His father hasn’t spoken to him in years.
After the media ran lists of people who were identified as gays and lesbians, many fled the country, Kamoga says. “I myself am a queer person living in Uganda, and if I go silent . . .” His voice trails off.
“I mean, I may get killed. I always tell people that I may not finish this job that I have started, but when we fight now we are making it easier for the next queer people who are going to come when we are gone. So we don’t have to go silent, we have to speak out.”
In some ways, he believes being open is a means of protecting himself.
“When you put your name out there, or if you tell people about what is happening, this probably could save you,” he says.
He brings up his summer visit to Montreal, where he was invited to speak at the World Social Forum around Pride. There, he had his picture taken with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Kamoga considers the photo a sort of talisman against danger.
“When I took that picture with Justin Trudeau, little did I know that that picture could somehow protect me, because here in Uganda people think that because I’ve met such people, they think that I'm somehow protected,” he says.
The Queer Kampala International Film Festival will not bear much resemblance to similar festivals in Canada or the US. Those who wish to attend a screening in Kampala must undergo screening themselves. If potential attendees who connect through social media are not personally known to Kamoga and his friends, organizers will examine their Facebook pages to assess if there’s reason to suspect ill will.
If they don’t seem suspect, organizers will then ask potential attendees to explain a bit about themselves. Once vetted, attendees will have to wait until just before screening time for a private message indicating the location.
The festival is being discreetly publicized through Uganda’s queer organizations, some of which are so secretive that they are effectively invisible. Kamoga wants allies to feel welcome too, though again, the challenge is identifying friend from foe.
Organizers are not reaching out to the police because those who are sworn to protect are among those most likely to disrupt and initiate violence, he says.
Finding venues has also been a challenge.
“At first we were looking at commercial theatres where they normally screen films, but most of these places don’t want to host us because of the nature of the festival that we are organizing,” Kamoga notes.
“We are looking at queer-friendly clubs and hotels that have space. We also have people from the queer community who have private homes and they want us to have some of our activities in their homes.”
When attendees do pass the vetting and find their way to the venue, admission is free. Organizers don’t want money to be an added barrier to participation.
Festival screenings will be a mix of offerings from around the world and Uganda, including one by Kamoga about the media’s outing of queer people. Kamoga, a small-scale farmer, also runs his own film company, Visual Power Uganda.
Through a global platform for filmmakers, FilmFreeway.com, the Queer Kampala International Film Festival has received submissions from Kenya, Germany, Tanzania, Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom. There will be 30 screenings, including six films from Africa and 23 from other continents. One of the festival’s screenings will take place remotely in Toronto at the same time as the main festival in Kampala.
Kamoga says that many of the filmmakers react strongly to the idea of showing their film in Uganda.
“Most of the filmmakers, when they hear Uganda, they actually freak out,” Kamoga says. “So one of the ways that they can support our cause is by giving us their films to screen. They are actually trying to monitor the situation and they are promising to come for the next edition [of the festival]. They want to see how safe this event is going to be.”
Despite the fear, many of the films being screened will not be stories of repression but uplifting narratives that can give LGBT people living in Uganda a sense of hope, exploring themes like LGBT activism during the Stonewall riots.
Even as Kamoga and other Ugandan queers fight for their rightful place in society, he admits they feel deeply alone. “We have not got any financial support, and it’s really embarrassing to say that because we are organizing this festival using our own resources,” he says. “At the moment, we feel like we are really abandoned by the world. People know about what is happening in Uganda, but they’re not helping.”
To countries like Canada where LGBT people are revelling in unprecedented freedom and equality, Kamoga appeals for greater understanding of the critical situations other queer communities are facing worldwide.
“As people celebrate about achieving their rights anywhere around the world, like in countries such as the US and Canada, they have to think about people who are living in the 75 countries where it’s actually criminalized to be gay,” he says. “They have to support our work and they have to speak out.”
How to support the Queer Kampala International Film Festival
You can make a direct financial contribution to this year’s Queer Kampala International Film Festival by clicking here. All funds raised will be spent on venues, filmmaker fees, equipment leasing, interns, workshops and website development. Additional money may be awarded in small grants to queer Ugandan filmmakers or people who are passionate about telling LGBT stories in Uganda and other East African countries.
Additionally, on Dec 10, 2016, the Queer Kampala International Film Festival in partnership with Xtra Spark will present a satellite screening at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema of the film Outed, an unflinching dramatization of the violence faced by LGBT people in Uganda. QKIFF organizer Hassan Kamoga will be in attendance via Skype for a post-screening Q&A.
Tickets can be purchased here, with all proceeds from ticket sales being donated to the QKIFF.
Special thanks to community partners Imagine Cinema, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Inside Out, Supporting our Youth and Glad Day Bookshop for supporting the Toronto satellite screening.