Living in gay-friendly Los Angeles, and an increasingly gay-friendly America, is a wonderful thing, but not all gays and lesbians are so lucky. Born This Way, a documentary by Los Angeles filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, focuses on the underground gay and lesbian community in Cameroon.
The film, which should be completed by the end of this year, follows Cedric and Gertrude, two brave, young Cameroonians. They move between a secret, supportive LGBT community and an outside culture that, though intensely homophobic, is in transition toward greater acceptance. We caught up with Kadlec, a former Fulbright Fellow, and asked a few questions about the documentary.
L.A. Weekly: Why did you make a documentary about gay Cameroon?
Shaun Kadlec: It started with meeting a compelling person. My directing partner Deb Tullmann and I met Steave Nemande, a Cameroonian physician who founded the first gay and lesbian center in his country. He was here in LA where he was honored by Human Rights Watch. I hadn't realized that Cameroon has one of the most aggressive programs to prosecute gay and lesbian people in Africa, but that it is on the verge of positive change. A vibrant and brave LGBT community has formed there, and they are beginning to come out publicly.
Weekly: Did you personally face any dangers as you filmed in Cameroon?
Kadlec: I guess the most danger we got ourselves into was sneaking a homemade hidden camera into a courtroom where two women were being tried for “lesbianism and witchcraft.”
We hadn't planned to use hidden cameras, so we taped an iPhone into the bottom of a briefcase and cut a small hole for the lens. It's illegal to shoot in Cameroon at all without a permit, and we definitely didn't have one–and it's illegal for anyone to record inside of a courtroom.
Plus, it's illegal to be gay. The audience also got pretty rowdy by the end of the trial. So we probably could have gotten into a lot of trouble.
Weekly: What were the main things that you learned while working on the documentary?
Kadlec: I have a whole new definition of bravery now. Homophobia is so intense in Cameroon. There's a huge lack of education about sexuality. Most people think that it's a cult or a form of demon possession or at the very least an evil, immoral practice that you choose to do.
When we went to Cameroon for the first time, we expected that we would have to conceal the identities of the people who appear in the film. But they are ready for the world to know that they exist. They are willing to risk everything to be who they really are. I am incredibly humbled by that bravery.
Weekly: What do you hope the audience will get from your film?
Kadlec: I hope they'll have the experience of being in Cameroon with the amazing people we followed. It's all about their lives. Sometimes it's strange or beautiful or confusing or shocking, just like it is to be there.
We don't have interviews with experts, and we're not in the film. We wanted to recreate the experience of living in their world. There's something about being there that makes you feel like dancing and crying at the same time.
So much joy–friendship, music, culture, passion to succeed, but at the exact same time there's the poverty, homophobia, fear, illness, unemployment. I think there's something universal in the struggle to reconcile these contradictions. It's a lot easier to ignore them here.
Weekly: Why is it important for people to see the film?
Kadlec: Whatever your sexuality, if you spend an hour and a half with the people in Born This Way, there's a good chance you'll fall in love with them. And if you love them, maybe you'll want to connect with them and maybe even support their work and their struggle.
They feel really isolated from the rest of the world. Though that has changed some since Hillary Clinton made her speech last year in Geneva declaring that gay rights are human rights — which happened while we were making the film.
We met with the American ambassador to Cameroon, and he said that supporting LGBT rights has become a priority. And the potential that Cameroon will change its laws against homosexuality is very real — especially if the international community helps both the leaders and average citizens understand what a positive thing that would be.
To watch the trailer and make a contribution to the film, check out Born This Way.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.