When we arrived at Gertrude's apartment to film her evening routines, we almost called it quits. Gertrude is one of the main subjects of our documentary, Born This Way, on the LGBT underground in Cameroon (in Central Africa). We were coming from a very difficult day of shooting in Douala, Cameroon's largest and, to an outsider, most difficult city. It felt like everything we did that day was illegal: You can't shoot in Cameroon without a government permit and observer. We had neither. Cameroon sends more people to jail for being gay than any other country. We and all of our subjects are LGBT. We dodged police trying to get shots of the central prison and told bystanders the half-lie that we were doing a film on public health. We had risked our lives riding motorcycle taxis without helmets to Gertrude's apartment, our camera equipment in backpacks, weaving in and out of traffic jams that would have made the journey take nearly two hours by car.
We wanted to capture the flavor of her private time -- cooking dinner, emailing, looking at photos -- but when we arrived, the electricity went out. It was already evening, and we had planned to shoot by electric light. Then her girlfriend, Sidoine, who had already told us that she did not want to be on camera, showed up. And then it started to rain, which made recording clean audio very difficult. We began to pack up our gear.
Gertrude works at Alternatives Cameroun, the first LGBT center in Cameroon. We had been following her as she moves between the incredibly supportive community there and the dangers of navigating the wider world of family, religion, friends, and generally figuring out how much of her true self she can allow others to see. The choice to be on camera is very serious. The finished film will not be shown in Cameroon or France (Cameroon is a former French colony) or online, to minimize exposure, but we all know that there is no way to guarantee that people in Cameroon will not see her.
Just as we were leaving, Gertrude and Sidoine lit two candles and sat down to talk about their days. They were beautiful silhouetted against the orange light that the candles cast on the bare wall. It made us pause. We took out the camera just to see if there was enough light to capture an image -- and there was. We showed Sidoine how she looked on the camera's small LCD screen, and she agreed that she was unrecognizable enough that we could record her. And so we did until the candles burned down. The footage from that night became one of the most powerful scenes in the whole film, both visually striking and very intimate. They talked about a very painful incident that they had only discussed superficially before, when Gertrude and two of her friends were raped, "correctively," by a group of men as they were coming home from church.
In a lot of ways, we took a similar approach to the whole film. We arrived in Cameroon without an essay in our heads that we wanted to bring to life on video. We didn't have any points to prove. We are deeply committed to the struggle for LGBT rights, but we did not think of our film as any kind of direct political or social action. We just wanted people to be able to get to know what it's like to be a human being -- a gay human being -- in this one specific corner of Africa at this one specific period of time. We had a sense from when we first met the founder of Alternatives Cameroun in Los Angeles through Human Rights Watch that this was a very rich and complicated place.
We did not know that we would find so much joy and passion among the LGBT underground. A movement as such doesn't really exist there yet, but it is forming, and you feel the energy and uncertainty of creation everywhere. Despite the constant threat of danger and the fear that they felt, they danced. At the LGBT center they laughed and talked and tried to figure out how the hell to live their lives, and then they went out, often alone, to face the challenges of family, church, friends, strangers. The film stays with its subjects on their roller coaster rides between hope and despair and somehow is still uplifting and often funny.
If we had showed up with a plan to document "the struggle for LGBT equality in Cameroon," we're not sure we would have seen what was really there. It's hard to say. Right now, the movement in Cameroon exists almost entirely inside the hearts of those involved. There is very little organization and infrascructure, though they are building it.
We talked a lot while we were in Cameroon about allowing the subjects of the film to tell their own stories -- which is impossible in a pure sense if we are operating the camera and deciding which footage to use in the editing process. But in spirit, this is what we strived for. Almost all of the most powerful footage in the film was shot with virtually no planning. We did a lot of planning and tried to put ourselves in places where we thought rich interactions might take place, but if we hadn't constantly asked ourselves, "What is really happening now?" we might very well have missed the truest things, which in the moment often don't look much different from the rest of life as it unfolds.
Except when you're riding on a motorcycle taxi. Douala is so dense, and the roads are so narrow, and it is always so hot that when you get on one, you feel a freedom you forgot was possible. We saw several motorcycle accidents while we were there. Nobody wears helmets. The drivers zoom down the wrong side of the road and weave between cars so close that you brush them with your knees. But they have a feel for the way vehicles and bodies move in Douala. It's like a dance the way the drivers sense and respond to each other. And it is totally incomprehensible to an American driver who is used to strict rules and not having to give way to other drivers. We tried very hard to capture this feeling in the film, with Deb operating the camera sandwiched between Shaun and the motorcycle driver while Shaun looked out for police. The footage doesn't really convey that feeling of freedom -- not the way the candlelight footage between Gertrude and Sidoine conveys the fragility and strength of their bond in a dark sea of seemingly impossible obstacles. But we will carry that feeling with us forever: of throwing our arms around a stranger and trusting him to carry us through an incomprehensible world, our lives quite literally in his hands.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival Born This Way screenings:
New York premiere and Q-and-A with filmmakers and film subject, human rights lawyer Alice Nkom:
Friday, June 21, 9:15 p.m., Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Saturday, June 22, 7 p.m., IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third Street
Frameline San Francisco:
Friday, June 28, 1:30 p.m., Castro Theater
Outfest Los Angeles:
Sunday, July 14, 7:30 p.m., Harmony Gold Theater