There are more arrests for homosexuality in Cameroon than any other country in the world. With intimate access to the lives of four young gay Cameroonians, Born This Way steps outside the genre of activist filmmaking and offers a vivid and poetic portrait of day-to-day life in modern Africa. Lyrical imagery, devastating homophobia, the influence of western culture and a hidden-camera courtroom drama mysteriously 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.
Relatively simple questions guided our shooting: who are you? What are your lives? What does it mean to be gay right now in this part of Africa?
We followed two main subjects as they went out into the world to confront their own challenges and then returned to Alternatives to regroup with their friends, to figure things out, to treat each other’s wounds and to build up their courage to go out once again.
One challenge to all of this was Cameroon’s laws. It is illegal to shoot documentary footage without government permission. We filed for a permit under the cover of doing a film on HIV/AIDS prevention, but when they said that we needed to have a government observer with us at all times, we realized that we would have to stay undercover.
We alternated operating camera and sound. We shot on a Canon HDSLR and a Panasonic HVX200. We moved around the city and country with our subjects on the crowded buses and motorcycle taxis that they use, with our cameras in backpacks, being careful not to shoot when police or official-looking people were around. We hid in plain sight, much like LGBT Cameroonians do. Living with a constant sense of danger and often fear helped us connect with our subjects on an empathetic level—though the fear and risk that they live with every day of their lives is much more serious. When we went into Alternatives Cameroun with them, almost all of the fear evaporated. It is one of the only sanctuaries where LGBT people can be who they are openly with one another. So we built Born This Way around our subjects’ movement between safety and danger. It is not an essay film. There isn’t a lot of exposition. It is a view from the inside of a secret community on the verge of transforming into a social movement. It observes the very specific details of several lives.
CHOOSING TO BE ON CAMERA
When we first went to Cameroon, we expected that very few LGBT people would be willing to show their faces on camera. We were surprised when most of those who appear in the film told us that they were willing to reveal their identities. Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives Cameroun, said, “We are tired of pretending that gay people do not exist in Cameroon.”
We talked at length with everyone about the possible dangers. Several people, such as Yves Yomb, are out publicly in Cameroon. He has even appeared on television there speaking about LGBT issues and has not been harassed. Others were concerned about their families seeing the film and finding about their sexuality. We decided together not to show the
film in Cameroon or France, where many people have family, or to show the faces of the participants online. They understand how likely it is that images or clips from the film will end up online without our permission. Even so, they all said that it is a risk they are willing to take.
A CHANGING CAMEROON
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.