Out Film Festival Shame Is a Dress I Wear Long to Hide My Truth

OUT Film festival 2018
© Jackie Karuti

I’d never thought about shame as a luxury before. I’d never thought about shame much at all. Felt it, yes, but never tried to pin it down and ask it when, why, and how it became part of my life. It wasn’t until the 2018 Out Film Festival (OFF) in Nairobi that I had to scrutinize that abstract feeling when I was confronted with the festival theme, We No Longer Have the Luxury of Shame. 

Before the festival, I was reading Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs The Patriarchy 2, a feminist graphic novel by Liv Stromquist3 . In chapter four, Feeling Eve, or In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Stromquist writes, “I once read that the difference between guilt and shame is that we feel guilty for something we’ve done, but we feel shame for what we are.”

This definition brought to mind something that happened to my friends and I earlier in the year.

Two lesbians, two gay men and a gender non-conforming person walked into a club in Kampala. We were stopped by a bouncer at an entrance that led to the outdoor bar. The bouncer wouldn’t let our gender-nonconforming friend through because they were in high-heels, or, in the bouncer’s words, “dressed like a woman.” When we tried to defend our friend, the bouncer pointed to one of our two gay friends and accused him also of dressing like a woman. We decided to leave before the issue escalated. On our way out, the manager, who knew our other gay friend, pulled him aside to say we could use another entrance. We left anyway.

The manager tried to ease his guilt by smuggling us in like sachets of waragi4 ; the kind I’d slip in my bra to avoid buying expensive drinks at the bar. This only emphasized that their problem wasn’t something we did but who we are in their eyes and the eyes of Uganda’s law: Illegal goods.

Living in Uganda has left me too familiar with the shame these experiences ignite. It’s like suffering a hundred tiny cuts to the gut but internal bleeding remains hard to detect. It’s a feeling which was articulated in the award-winning short story Jambula Tree5 by Monica Arac de Nyeko:

“Our names became forever associated with the forbidden. Shame.”

Ten years after Jambula Tree, which is set in Uganda, won the 2007 Caine Prize6 it was adapted into the film Rafiki7 by Wanuri Kahiu, a Kenyan filmmaker. Rafiki, which tells the love story of two Kenyan girls – Kena and Ziki – was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB). They announced on Twitter on April 27th, 2018 that they “banned the film Rafiki due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.” Wanuri Kahiu took the battle to the High Court, arguing that the film couldn’t be submitted to the Oscars Selection Committee Kenya. Months later, the High Court lifted the ban for seven days from September 21 to September 30. By the time of festival, the ban was back in effect.

On opening night of the Out Film Festival, before the programme started, I sat outside watching people as they approached the auditorium of the Goethe-Institut Nairobi. There were a few documents plastered by the entrance. One was the poster for the festival and the others displayed the festival programme. The poster design centred a ticket stub from a screening of Rafiki, a memento from the seven days during which the ban was lifted. Every so often someone would see the poster and their face would light up until they consulted the programme and realised that Rafiki wouldn’t be screening. OFF 2018 was curated by Jackie Karuti8 and Muthoni Ngige9 . They selected nine films - shorts and features, documentaries and fiction - to screen over the four days of the festival. The films came from Chile, Cuba, France, Germany, the UK, the USA, Canada-India, and other countries. Only one, Reluctantly Queer, came from an African country and even then it was a joint Ghana-USA production.

In Reluctantly Queer, an 8-minute short shot in a gritty grayscale, a gay Ghanaian man narrates a letter to his mother over images of his daily life in America: showering, brushing his teeth, holding his lover. He misses his mother but can’t reconcile feeling threatened as a black man in the US and feeling threatened as a gay man in Ghana.

At a film festival, the films shown are the most important part of the festival. At OFF 2018, the films not shown were just as important, if not more. The use of the Rafiki ticket stub and the programming of Reluctantly Queer drew attention to the censored films and the silenced voices that could not be present. Banning a film is a legal sanction. Shame is the cultural sanction that follows. It’s how culture, community, and country mark the unacceptable, the unwelcome, the taboo. It is an effective tool: one that asks you to do all the work of putting yourself down and keeping yourself in check. It is a form of self-mutilation. This is why we no longer have the luxury of shame. But what does it mean to be without shame? What is the opposite of shame?

The opening night panel was titled Shameless, a word that usually has a negative connotation. It was a candid sharing of stories about queer sexual experiences, primarily lesbian and bisexual experiences because that’s how the panel members identify. Talk about sex and you’ve got your audience hooked. But this discussion was about more than sex. It was about changing the way we feel about letting go of shame. It was about getting the audience to feel that shame is not a birthright or some twisted badge of honour. It was about understanding that being shameless isn’t always a bad thing.

Earlier that day, I was with a few of the panellists that went to visit Ishtar10, an MSM11 health and social well-being centre. We toured the space and met some of the men who do outreach. We also met some of the Ishtar Dolls, a group of artists, designers, and performers. A member of the Ishtar Dolls said something that stuck with me the whole festival. He said it is important to get people to stop seeing them, the Ishtar Dolls and members of Ishtar, only as men who have sex with men. It is important for them to be seen as artists, performers, and all the other layers of their identities instead of reducing them to their sexuality.

Holding the shameless panel on day one felt like an echo of this sentiment. Yes, let’s talk about sex, shamelessly, but let’s also get it out of the way. Because while East African governments are preoccupied with our sex lives and trying to make us feel ashamed about them, we are much more than what we do in the bedroom. (Imagine their disappointment in discovering we mostly use our bedrooms to sleep. Just like everyone else.)

The collective queer movement in East Africa spans decades of hard work. OFF has just finished its eighth edition, making it a relatively young project. Kevin Mwachiro, one of the founders of the festival, told us how in the beginning, the audience was just a handful of people willing to risk attending the screenings. That was in 2010. By 2018, the auditorium was packed and each day it became harder to get a seat for the screening. This is how change often comes about, through perseverance. Through people like Kevin, who start even when it doesn’t seem like the right time.

On the second day of the festival, the panel All the Threatened and Delicious Things Joining One Another brought together such people. Activists, artists, podcast hosts, and bloggers: each working on their own corner of the movement; stitching together a better existence for the queer communities online and offline, in East Africa and as far as South Africa. Each taking their own measure of risk to do so.

Samantha Mugatsia, who plays Kena in Rafiki, was on this panel. She had travelled with the film to festivals around the world. Rafiki picked up at least nine awards along the way. Still, some critics felt the film was conventional for western audiences. But what was conventional for them felt revolutionary when Rafiki finally came home at the end of September and screenings sold out across Kenya. What was revolutionary for Kenya seemed unattainable for Uganda where the film might never be screened. But there was hope. Precedence had been set. In the same way India’s decriminalisation of homosexuality12 set precedence for the legal battle to repeal similar laws in Kenya.

If it could happen for them, I thought, maybe it could happen for us.

One of the enduring issues on this panel was brought up by Linda Pepper, also known as Kenyan babydyke to her online community. She believes that leaders, artists, activists, and people with a voice in the queer community hold a responsibility to make room or make progress for the “baby queers”13 to come. This might mean changing laws, making safe spaces, starting conversations on various levels, creating platforms that were once unimaginable. Neo Musangi; a gender non-conforming scholar, artist, and performer; on the other hand, felt no looming responsibility toward those who might come after them.

As queers, feminists, and artists, it’s easy to place the burden of change on each other or to see our priorities as everyone’s priorities. We place expectations on others and when they don’t live up to those expectations, we lash out.

Sometimes, making headway on behalf of a community is the goal, like when it comes to changing legislation, which is what National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC)14 is doing, or opening up dialogue with bodies of the government that directly impact healthcare funding for MSM, which is part of what Ishtar does.

Sometimes, paving the way for the next generation comes about naturally. Neo has been visible – physically, through performances about gender non-conformity on the streets of Nairobi. They have been visible online, through social media, blogs, and academic papers. The act of creating from your own truth, like Neo does, gives others courage to follow or make their own way.

It’s why artists and activists sat together for panel discussions. It reminded us that there is more than one way to go about change. Art can match the strength of activism. Reflection requires as much time and space as action. Celebration and pride march together with resistance and protest.

On Friday 9 November, 2018, OFF was on its third day and the auditorium was overflowing. I was moderating the panel for the night, Pride and Protest, which presented Ugandan artists and activists. As we were preparing for the panel, news was coming in from The Independent15 that 10 men had been arrested in Zanzibar. It was the latest in a flood of regional and international media coverage about the persecution of queer people in Tanzania. The men were allegedly attending a gay wedding and were to be subjected to anal exams. The purpose of this archaic and unscientific exam is to prove homosexual activity. All it can ever be is a human rights abuse.

While we gathered in Nairobi for the festival, Paul Makonda, the City Administrative Head in Dar es Salaam, gathered a task force to find and imprison gay people. He justified it as a crackdown on sex workers. However, his call to report gay people went out to the city on YouTube and escalated into a witch-hunt that resulted in the outing of hundreds of LGBTQ+ Tanzanians online. If caught they would face 30 years in prison for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.”

The situation in Tanzania was a chilling echo of Uganda in 2014, when thousands of LGBTQ+ Ugandans fled the country as refugees to avoid the repercussions of the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act16 . It revived in us the potent fear and shame that follows public humiliation. The Pride and Protest panel was an emotional journey through stories of trauma, perseverance, and frustration. It was also a healing space as we shared poetry, stories of solidarity, and even an energising spell by our resident witch, defender, and activist Mildred Apenyo. The other two members of the panel were Godiva Akullo; lawyer, activist, and writer; and DJ Racheal; music producer and activist. All of them had been at the frontlines in one way or another. They knew all too well the panic of finding a familiar photo in a tabloid, the terror of a police raid – the memory still sent tremors through Godiva’s hands – and the persistent anguish of being seen as a walking crime. As much as we confronted the pain, we shared strategies to survive it, to heal, and to thrive.

As the panel closed, Mildred invited Godiva to perform an imitation of Mato Oput17 , an Acholi ceremony of forgiveness and reconciliation. Each laid a hand on the others head and offered words of forgiveness that washed over the silent auditorium. Mildred’s point in performing reconciliation was to remind the community present of something simple, something monumental. We have to forgive each other. We have to forgive ourselves. We have to reconcile. Like many movements, the queer movement in Uganda (and in Kenya) is plagued by infighting, scrambles for funds, and long held grudges. These issues are often more effective in setting us back than public discrimination or banning films. They continue to segment an already segmented collection of people, until we stand isolated.

On Saturday night at the final panel, The State, the Award and the Academy, Jim Chuchu spoke about how Stories of Our Lives (2014), 18 his first feature film, was banned in Kenya. Stories of Our Lives, an anthology of five stories from Kenya’s LGBT community went on to win a Teddy Jury Award19. The Teddy Award is a queer film award co-founded by Wieland Speck, a German film director, who sat next to Jim Chuchu on the panel and was invited by the Goethe-Institut as the guest of honor for the festival. In discussion with them were Dionne Edwards, a British screenwriter and director, and Aida HollyNambi, who works with None on Record20 and is a reporter and producer for the podcast AfroQueer21.

After the panel ended, curator Jackie Karuti made a brief speech. In it she mentioned how someone had accused her of not being queer enough to curate the Out Film Festival.

Let’s pause for a pop-quiz.

1. This attack was on
a. something she is or
b. something she did

2. This comment was intended to make her feel
a. shame or
b. guilt

When I was asked to write this article, I was anxious because I have a nagging voice at the back of my head that asks: What makes you worthy to do this? What authority do you have to write this? What do you even know about this?

It is natural to fear that they will rip us to shreds, if only to build themselves up. That instead of criticising and helping to right our mistakes (because we do make mistakes) our enemies and allies alike will conflate our errors with a personal deficiency.

This is a debilitating feeling. This is an illusion. One that’s real easy to buy into. It keeps us from realising we are worthy of writing, curating festivals, making films, creating art, podcasting, protesting, celebrating, surviving, thriving. In her essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury,  Audre Lorde writes,

“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

These words are why I write even when I doubt myself. Because it’s vital to my existence.