The Pearl of Africa: Interview with Jonny von Wallstrom

Currently, 79 countries around the world criminalise homosexuality. Uganda is one of the worst countries to be LGBTI, and the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 introduced the death penalty for those whoa re gay. While the act has since been dropped due to procedural grounds, the effects have been heavily felt throughout Uganda.

The documentary The Pearl of Africa follows the story of 28-year-old transgender Ugandan Cleopatra Kambugu. She was biologically born a man, but already in her early years began wearing female clothes and identifying as a woman. With the support of her mother and lifelong partner, she was able to live a relatively hassle-free life until the Act was passed. The following day the local tabloid paper Red Pepper published the story ‘Exposed: Uganda’s 200 top homosexuals’, which included a photograph and description of Cleo. Cleo lost her job and had to live in seclusion for one month.

The documentary began as a web series in which Cleo would talk about her life in Uganda. The filmmaker, Jonny von Wällstrom, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for Cleo’s sex reassignment surgery, and the campaign raised $14,000. In response to the campaign’s success, Cleo wrote an open letter on Facebook saying “I cried, they were tears of disbelief, of utter happiness, but then again I can’t believe any words could possibly describe what I felt deep inside. I just couldn’t believe that this dream, which seemed so distant and trivial, has finally come true.”

The Pearl of Africa captures a struggle that is rarely caught on film. We spoke to the filmmaker, Jonny von Wällstrom, about his thoughts on the current situation in Uganda. von Wallstrom started out in the Swedish film industry a decade ago and used to make music videos for a famous Ugandan act. When he realised their homophobic ways were the cause of a huge problem in the country, he set out to explore why Uganda is like this.

Cinema Scandinavia: How did you come across this story?

Jonny von Wällstrom: I was researching a documentary about a Ugandan gay couple that recently escaped Uganda to Sweden, and one of them was fearing for his family back home. I went to Uganda and was then introduced to Cleo through friends, and she was on the verge of wanting to document her story but couldn’t find anyone in Uganda who would do it because of a fear of being harassed. So then we started talking about making a documentary. Originally the documentary was mainly focused on her family and her story of wanting the surgery, but when she met Nelson it turned into a love story – I think was one year into the process of making the film. It became evident that the best way to talk about this is through love because everybody can identify with it.

CS: Was her family scared of talking about Cleo’s situation?

JVW: Yes her mother didn’t want to talk at first because she lived with her father at the time. She was under pressure to keep quiet from the father, so she was caught between her father and her son/daughter. She had started taking hormones and started to look like a woman, but it took a lot longer for the family to stop calling her their son. I think they are still having a hard time with the right pronouns and everything. When the surgery happened last May I Skyped with her mother and she was very happy that the film was being made and Cleo was having her surgery and everything, so it was a very different situation. Partly I think that was because she had moved out of the house where she was staying with her father.

CS: You mentioned that you were researching homosexuality in Uganda, what made you want to look into that subject?

JVW: I worked with a lot of Ugandan artists and I have a lot of friends who are Ugandan. However, I was always curious about the topic in Uganda. While a lot of my friends are based here in Sweden it was so clear that this was a very sensitive topic. I worked with them and got really touchy with them because I thought it was funny that they were so in fear of male intimacy. That led me to follow the situation that was developing in Uganda with the law that was introduced. When I started to get deeper into the subject I felt like the stories have got the gay issue told through gay men. I thought the trans story was probably an easier way to talk about the issues because it might be easier to accept Cleo as a woman as they can clearly see that she is a woman. She’s not a man. But if it’s a feminine man it’s much harder for them to start a conversation.

I felt like that story was untold and at the time there wasn’t a lot of talk about trans stories, I always felt like there was never a story that shows them as human beings. It’s always the technical sides of ‘how do you become trans?’ ‘how do you have the surgery?’ – It’s often told through the partner’s perspectives. That’s not the type of film I wanted to make, so I’ve tried to keep both the political conflict out as much as I get, as well as Nelson’s perspective because that’s not the perspective I wanted the film to have.

CS: Was the surgery about Cleo being officially recognised as a woman?

JVW: That’s the hope that she says. I think that it’s maybe a bit naïve, but that’s what she hopes for. And that’s the interesting thing about Cleo: she believes in this so she is probably going to make it happen. From my perspective, it seems very unlikely but I think she can still do it. She knows the political landscape much better than I do, but at the same time it’s been used as a political tool right up to the elections that were in Uganda this year.

CS: Is the political situation in Uganda as bad as it is portrayed in the news?

JVW: Not at all, and that’s the difficult thing for people to understand. These are human beings who are deceived in a way and hated. If we go back to why there’s a law in Uganda in the first place it’s because the British made that ruling. It is a European heritage in that sense. They kept the law and made it into their own. But then it’s also become this religious thing. It’s such a difficult thing to talk about there because it’s sensitive from both a political and religious perspective, but I feel like a lot of people have been deceived in a way that they go to the big media outlets and make it out to be an abomination but that’s fairly simplistic because if you look at it from a human perspective it doesn’t really matter how much you sin – if you are religious I expect you to be the bigger man or woman and accept people even if they sin because you do the same. Even though I’m not Christian, if they called themselves good Christians they should be able to accept them as being human beings. If they don’t agree, they probably aren’t so good Christians anyway.

CS: Is being homosexual in Uganda as difficult as the media makes it out to be?

JVW: I think so, definitely. But it’s not as hostile as it’s being portrayed. It’s the same in Afghanistan – there are bombers but there is also normal everyday life and people adapt. For Cleo, she could be out in the open as a woman and not be harassed because she was on hormones. There has always been a law, but then there was a new law that was introduced and it created a lot of political heat. While it has been removed, when it was introduced people were put on the front pages of tabloid magazines – including Cleo – about how they became homosexuals. That changed how they could be out in the open. But there have always been bars where they could go out. As her sister talks about, a lot of them live out in the night because they can dress up and do as they please because it’s easier to get away with. But Cleo was afraid of going on public transportation after her face was in the newspaper because it was easier to get harassed there. Because she wants to dress her femininity more than she would need if she didn’t go through the transition period. She dresses in short skirts and gets harassed because of that – they may not know she’s a transgender but she gets harassed in a certain way and I think those things also play into it.

CS: You wanted to show Cleo as the person she is, not why she wanted to become a woman. Why did you want to focus on that element?

JVW: I feel like that story has already been told. I felt like I wanted to create an emotional film that takes you on that journey where you understand it on a deeper level rather than having it told in the traditional way. I didn’t want it to be so much about the surgery, but more-so about their personal journey through that. I felt like the film would be much better if it was just a love story, but then you also need a certain amount of back-story from the political conflict. I wanted to tell that through their family and not through the outside. That’s what I think the media is portraying in the wrong way a lot of the time, where they make it into this big political thing but for all these individual people like Cleo, it’s very personal. They live their life, go to work, do their thing then they come home to their family. They live it inside of themselves. That’s what I feel like the media doesn’t understand – this isn’t an outside conflict as it’s been portrayed, it’s more an internal one within families and within people.

CS: Was Nelson having as hard a time as Cleo when it came to harassment?

JVW: Not in the way of being harassed. Cleo and Nelson have known each other since high school, so long before she started transitioning. At that time they had some kind of chemistry but they didn’t know what it was. He was dating her best friend and then they were separated and they started dating much later again when they had started transitioning. When the film started he had a hard time understanding the whole concept – what is it to be trans? What is it to be gay? He struggled with all of those things being in that kind of community. And also dating a trans woman and all that comes with that. It’s interesting to see him in the film because in the beginning the first time I met him I moved in with him and Cleo. He was very uncomfortable with that but I think the fact that I moved in with him made it much easier because he was thinking ‘here is this white Swedish dude coming to live with me and I’m not going to become friends with him’ and then we became friends.

That whole process with him understanding the topic is interesting to see throughout the film. There’s an interview with him in the first meeting and he was so awkward and quiet and it was so hard to see how he will develop. I think a year and a half later when I did the interview that’s in the film he’s so elaborate on the subject and he has learned so much through the film. I think that the strength of the film in a way is that everything they are doing in the film is something they are experiencing for the first time. They do everything together for the first time. Their outlook on life is that they are doing this for the first time. They are walking out on the mountain for the first mountain, they have never been there. They don’t go out so much in public because they don’t want to take risks and maybe they stay in this environment because they are more comfortable. When you make a film they push themselves a little bit more. It’s interesting to see how they reacted and developed.

CS: How did Cleo manage to get the money for the surgery?

JVW: We started a web series and we did that to crowd fund for Cleo’s surgery. We crowdfunded for the surgery where people could watch the web series on Huffington Post. They could go and help her fund the surgery which would then be in the film. It wasn’t crowd funding to make the film, but to have her surgery. It was massive, especially in the LGBT community worldwide. All the big outlets picked that up. The trans web series was also picked up by CNN and BBC and a lot of news outlets. It got a huge response worldwide.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.