The future of Uganda’s only LGBTQ film festival is uncertain after law enforcement officials shut down the event last week.
On Dec. 9, three policemen arrived on the second day of the Queer Kampala International Film Festival carrying AK-47s. QueerKIFF founder Mirakel Rakkaus Hossy says that officers accused them of screening pornographic movies intended to “recruit children into homosexuality.” Now in its sophomore year, the annual gathering exhibits documentaries and narrative films about the struggles facing queer, transgender, and intersex people around the world.
This year’s lineup included a documentary on a transgender man who started his own LGBTQ rights organization in Western Uganda, as well as a film about the 2014 court ruling which overturned the country’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill.
Festival organizers were tipped off about a possible police raid by their attorneys earlier in the day, but Hossy says he thought it was a “joke.” The event wasn’t breaking any laws, and local activists had been working with police in recent months to educate officers on LGBTQ issues. He didn’t expect law enforcement to bust what was intended as an educational event.
“It was really sad that [the festival was shut down] based on some wrong information,” Hossy tells INTO in a phone interview. “You can’t watch a film and become gay.”
QueerKIFF was one of the few remaining spaces for LGBTQ people in Uganda to organize after a series of attacks on the community in recent years. The country’s Pride festival was cancelled for the second consecutive year in June after Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo threatened to organize angry mobs in order to besiege and brutalize attendees.
That was actually better than what happened the year before: Fifteen people were arrested after police raided the Mr. and Mrs. Pride Pageant. One person was hospitalized.
These attacks are the result of a government that is using the LGBTQ community as a “scapegoat” while it tenuously clings to power, Hossy says. President Yoweri Museveni has monopolized the executive office for 31 years after disbanding term limits. Debate over a proposal that would allow him to rule for life was so heated that there was a violent brawl on the floor of Parliament this year.
“This is a president who doesn’t want to step down,” Hossy claims. “He wants to rule Uganda until he dies. But the young generation wants change.”
Hossy says the government is using popular animus toward queer and transgender people to “divert attention” from calls for Museveni to abdicate his self-appointed throne. The Christian country is extremely bifurcated on LGBTQ issues: A 2017 survey from ILGA found that 49 percent of the country believes queer and trans citizens should have the same rights as every other Ugandan, but 54 percent argued that same-sex relations should be a crime.
In a country of 41 million, 54 percent is a lot of people.
LGBTQ advocates worry that with the frequent raids on queer events, federal authorities may have an unlikely ally in targeting sexual and gender minorities: other LGBTQ people. QueerKIFF fears that its organizing ranks were infiltrated with “moles” who gave law enforcement information on where the festival was being held.
After a successful run last year, organizers took the same approach to attendees’ safety in 2017: constantly switching venues, holding programs in different locations, and announcing meeting points at the last minute through secure networks.
“We did everything right this year,” Hossy alleges. “But the problem is that we were betrayed by people in the community we trusted.”
In the 10 days since QueerKIFF was shut down, organizers and their lawyers have already begun meeting with police to ensure the festival is allowed to go on next year. Hossy says that they are “trying to find a legal basis for holding this event and holding authorities accountable.”
“We believe when we get that, we can do another festival,” he claims. “What the police did was not right.”
Hossy tells INTO that finding a way forward is critical for Uganda’s LGBTQ community because there have been so few other events in the country to truly make an impact. More than 800 people turned out to last year’s festival, which drew in attendees from across the world.
Although QueerKIFF screens films from a variety of different countries (e.g., Brazil, Korea, and Germany), it allows queer and trans Ugandans the unique chance to see their stories represented by members of their own community. The event also gives filmmakers and advocates an opportunity to change hearts and minds among a wider population that is still progressing on LGBTQ issues.
Previous attempts to screen U.S. films on Ugandan life simply hadn’t resonated with the local population, Hossy claims.
“If you look at a country like Uganda, many people within our society believe that to be gay is something un-African,” he says. “When we showed them films that are done by Western filmmakers, people were saying, ‘These are films that are promoting the Western gay agenda.’”
But when Kamoga Hassan’s Outed: The Painful Reality screened in the country two years ago, the response was completely different. The film used a Ugandan cast and a Ugandan crew to tell the true-life story of the 200 LGBTQ people whose names were printed by a tabloid in 2014 just days after the country’s defunct anti-homosexuality law was passed.
Such exposure could be extremely dangerous in a nation where sodomy is punishable with life in prison. A man was murdered in 2010 after he was outed by the local newspaper Rolling Stone (no relation to the U.S. magazine).
“We saw people could relate to those stories,” Hossy says. “And through film, people now feel like they have a platform where they can actually share their own stories.”
The community had witnessed immense progress following last year’s inaugural QueerKIFF event. Hossy says that it was difficult to get more than a handful of LGBTQ people to show up to events in the old days, in fear of being targeted or harassed by police. That trepidation was present at this year’s opening night gala, but the atmosphere didn’t feel tense. He claims it felt like a celebration.
“It looked like a revolution,” Hossy says.
“But when we lose spaces where we can actually express ourselves and we can actually tell people about our experiences,” he adds, “it’s going to take us back to the old days where people were afraid to even speak out.”
Image via QKIFF/Facebook