By Sydney Levine | Sydneys Buzz June 28, 2013 at 1:30PM
OUTFEST SCREENINGSunday July 14th - 7:30pm / Harmony Gold TheaterTRT: 85 minutesFRAMELINE SCREENINGFriday June 28th - 1:30pm / Castro Theatre
Born This Way explores the underground gay and lesbian community in an intensely homophobic culture that is taking its first steps toward greater acceptance. More people are imprisoned each year for homosexuality in Cameroon than any other country in the world, serving sentences up to five years. The film focuses on two people who dream of sharing with their families the truth about who they really are: Cédric wants to come out to his mom, and Gertrude wants to come out to the Mother Superior who raised her in a Catholic convent.
Cédric and Gertrude work at a nonprofit that officially operates as an HIV/AIDS clinic, but also functions as a safe space where LGBT people can come together without fear of going to jail, being attacked or being rejected by family and friends. When two young women in a remote village are arrested for “lesbianism and witchcraft”, they turn to brilliant human rights lawyer Alice Nkom to defend them. Cédric and Gertrude’s activism becomes bolder and stronger as they work with Alice to help the two women.
Born This Way is a view from the inside of a secret community on the verge of transforming into a social movement. It offers an inspiring portrait of this young, courageous community as it struggles to find its voice in a deeply traditional culture. The film is not only an eye-opening work of art, but also a key component of a global campaign to raise awareness about an unjust, anachronistic law and the compromised legal system that enforces it. Lyrical imagery, devastating homophobia, glimpses of American culture and a hidden- camera courtroom drama coalesce into a story of what is possible in the global fight for equality.
We met Steave Nemande, the founder of Alternatives Cameroun (the first LGBT center in Cameroon) at a Human Rights Watch event in Los Angeles. As we talked, he told us about a very brave group of LGBT people who congregate at Alternatives. He described how they work and play there: doing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, providing psychological counseling and supporting people who are rejected by their families, but also throwing amateur runway fashion shows, dance parties and soccer matches. And during all of this, exploring together what it means to be gay, lesbian, African, human—in a place where none of these things are simple. He said that he believed many people in that community were ready, for the first time, to tell their stories.
So the two of us traveled alone to Cameroon on tourist visas. We spoke almost no French, the official language, and though we have both traveled widely, neither of us had ever been to Central Africa. We had no idea what kind of film we would end up with. We only knew that we would determine the structure and content by listening to the people who agreed to share their stories and their lives.
Although the situation for LGBT people in Cameroon is grim, when asked at a press conference in January 2013 about his country’s high prosecution rate for homosexuality, President Biya said, “There is no reason to despair. Minds are changing.” One month later, American Ambassador to Cameroon Robert P. Jackson invited President Biya to the premiere of Born This Way on behalf of the U.S. State Department. President Biya did not attend, but his ambassador to Germany met with the filmmakers and the American Ambassador to Germany and had a very open discussion about sexuality in Cameroon.
Nearly absolute power rests with Cameroon’s president, and we believe that he is opening up to the idea of dropping his country’s anti-homosexuality law. If it does change, the LGBT community will be able to work openly toward dispelling common homophobic stereotypes (that homosexuality is imported from the West, that it is a form of demon possession, that it is contagious). In fact, our friends in Cameroon say that public attitudes have already started to shift over the last few years. Some of them are comfortable enough to be out publicly now. They believe the public is ready for this message, and Born This Way is poised to be a tool for awareness-building and sensitization about this crucial human rights issue.
Shaun went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Carleton College in musicology, focusing on the history and theory of twentieth-century experimental music. Soon after, he spent a year in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Fellowship studying Sri Lanka’s civil war through contemporary literature. After the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, he co-created a research project to investigate how international aid money was being used for Sri Lanka’s disaster reconstruction. That took him back to Sri Lanka for another year, and that is where he made his first documentary film (on the role of Sri Lanka’s media in their civil war).
Deb and Shaun have co-directed many commercials and short documentaries, including “First and Loveliss,” an intimate portrait of two eccentric retirees in rural Tennessee which won the jury prize for best short documentary at Outfest in 2009.
After receiving her BA in English and Theatre from Westmont College in 2000, Deb spent several years doing international development and Public Health work in Latin America, Mongolia and Thailand. The interplay between social change and a fascination with visual storytelling led to her first documentary project in 2005. 2 years later, she co-founded Candlefoot Productions, a boutique video production company, that has produced pieces for PBS Frontline, UNDP ABC and many others. Born This Way is her first feature documentary.
Deb and Shaun both were raised in extremely conservative Christian homes in a small town in Central California. Making a film on this subject has sometimes put strains on their relationships with their families, though Deb’s parents have come around and are very supportive. Shaun gave his mom a DVD of the finished film after its premiere, but after watching the first 10 minutes, she refused on moral grounds to watch any more.