The Man Running a Queer Film Festival in a Nation Where Homosexuality Is Illegal

Queer filmmaker Kamoga Hassan is the organizer of Uganda's international LGBT film festival. On the eve of Pride, Hassan talks to Broadly about what's at stake.

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Aug 14 2017, 6:56pm

Photo courtesy Kamoga Hassan.

Uganda's sixth annual Pride festival, planned for Wednesday, August 16, is meant to be a defiant celebration of the country's LGBT community, but some worry it could also lead to a chaotic confrontation with local police. In a country where homosexual acts are illegal, past marchers reportedly found themselves arrested and beaten by police officers who deemed the gatherings unlawful.

For queer filmmaker Kamoga Hassan, this year's march and the events that follow are crucial to understanding the limitations and challenges for the country's next big LGBTQ event: the second Queer Kampala International Film Festival, due to be held in December. Preparations for the event are already underway.

Read more: Filmmaking as Social Justice: How 'Signature Move' Breaks Queer Stereotypes

"This time around, we are trying to monitor the situation," says Hassan in a Skype interview from his home in Kampala. Hassan is the founder of the festival, which is not only unique to Uganda but is also the only gay film festival organized in a country where homosexuality is illegal. The second queer film festival, he promises, is going to happen no matter what. He just needs to be ready.

Last year, the festival screened 30 films from countries like the US, Nigeria, Japan, and, of course, Uganda. The films touched on topics like love, migration, and raising kids. "People here don't know that LGBTQ people can have their own families and raise children," says Hassan. "We want them to see that."

Journalists weren't allowed to attend the event because Hassan and other members of the community were afraid that participants would be outed. Today, you can't even find photos of the screenings, but Hassan says the reaction to the films was encouraging. "Some people said it was an eye-opener to know that gay people are not the enemy," Hassan recalls.

"Some people said it was an eye-opener to know that gay people are not the enemy."

Still, some audience members took issue with the queer sex scenes. "We showed a film from Japan that had a sex scene and some people were very, very offended. I don't really understand it. Sex is sex. Why only is it only okay then when it's heterosexual?"

It was about this time last year that Hassan realized things were going to be even more complicated than he had anticipated. Last year, police raided a club at Kampala's Club Venom where an event was being held to crown the next Mr/Ms/Mx Uganda Pride. Police claimed they'd heard rumors the club was hosting a "gay wedding," thus justifying their arrests of more than 15 people and the detention of hundreds more. Some say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by the police, and one club-goer jumped from a sixth-floor window to avoid the abuse.

Hassan's festival was already in the making then, with submissions from all over the world, but after the events at Pride, he knew his approach needed to change.

Realizing he could not count on the police to provide security, Hassan concealed the times and locations of the events from both the police and law enforcement. So, the three-day festival rotated between four different venues and the locations for each screening were only given to pre-screened, registered audiences a few hours before show time.

A total of 836 guests attended the 2016 queer film festival, significantly more than organizers expected considering the extra hassle and security measures taken. The festival screened 30 films from countries including the U.S., Nigeria, Japan and Uganda.

Photo of Hassan courtesy Zinegoak Film Festival.

Uganda's LGBT community drew international condemnation back in 2014, when president Yoweri Museveni signed the bill colloquially known as the "kill the gays" bill, originally proposing a death penalty for homosexuality. That clause was later reduced to life imprisonment and, in August 2014, the Constitutional Court of Uganda annulled the law on procedural grounds.

But Ugandan legislators keep threatening to bring the act back to life. In the meantime, reports say, the mere passing of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 gave citizens permission to persecute Uganda's LGBTQ people with impunity and unleashed a culture of violent homophobia. Even though the Queer Kampala International Festival didn't have a physical address, its presence on social media made it vulnerable to backlash. To protect himself offline, Hassan applies a similar method to the one he uses for the festival: he makes sure his whereabouts are known to just a few. In the last few years, he's lived in five different apartments. He last moved a few months ago when he realized that his landlord had tripled his rent after learning he was organizing the festival. "I was paranoid that he would tell the police," he explains.

Hassan believes the festival will help to end some of the misconceptions about homosexuality and queer people in Uganda, many of which are reinforced by religious and political leaders, including the idea that it's "un-African" to be gay. "They think it's something imported from the West," says Hassan. Despite the fact that some current African leaders treat it as a recent Western import, homosexuality and openness to it has been documented in Africa since the 16th century. In Uganda specifically, King Mwanga II, who ruled the kingdom of Bugnada until 1903, was openly gay.
According to Hassan, the hate against the community is a Western import. "It's not so Ugandan," he said. "It's coming from Western countries."

Hassan is referring to British colonialists in Uganda who were the first to criminalize homosexuality, as well as to the evangelical leaders and missionaries from the US who nowadays travel to Uganda and preach against homosexuality. Their work has been documented most notably in the documentary film, "God Loves Uganda," which suggested an influence that extended to the "kill the gays" bill of 2014.

This is a hot button issue for the LGBTQ Ugandan community. Just last June, a US court dismissed a years-long case against Scott Lively, a prominent figure in the anti-gay American movement in Uganda. The group Sexual Minorities Uganda asked to charge Lively with crimes against humanity. While Judge Michael Ponser dismissed the case, he condemned Lively for having "aided and abetted a vicious and frightening campaign of repression against LGBTI persons in Uganda."

"The seeds of hate that were planted by these American evangelicals—you can still feel their presence, even when they are gone," says Hassan.

And those seeds of hate mean that Hassan isn't optimistic his festival could take a more public, open form this year, as the police view the festival as "promoting homosexuality." Hassan takes issue with the core premise of this statement, which insinuates that you can turn people gay. "We are promoting education and understating," he said. "We are not here to promote homosexuality."

"We want people to tell their own stories with their own images."

Still, he remains ambitious, with plans to expand this year's festival to 40 films, including more from Africa. "We realized that last year we programmed a lot of foreign films because it was a challenge to get African LGBTQ submissions," Hassan says. "We don't want it to look like an American film festival in Africa." Out of the 83 submissions they received so far, they were already far more African films.

He also wants to put emphasis on lesbian filmmakers and films that draw attention to major events around the world, like the situation in Chechnya, as "some Ugandans think that it's only a problem in Uganda."

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If they meet their funding goal, Hassan plans to add workshops with filmmakers from around the world to help LGBTQ Africans hone their own skills. "In countries where homosexuality is illegal, it's almost always foreigners who are making the films," he says. "We want people to tell their own stories with their own images."