The penal code in Cameroon states that “Whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years and fine of from 20,000 to 200,000 francs ($50-$500 USD).” According to Human Rights Watch, more people are arrested for homosexual acts in Cameroon than in any other country in the world. That’s just dealing with the authorities, not to mention the rampant homophobia within the villages of Cameroon and the prevailing thought that lesbianism and witchcraft go hand-in-hand.
Filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann set out to give the growing underground LGBT community in Cameroon a voice, or better, amplify their burgeoning voices. Kadlec and Tullmann provide an intimate look into what it means to be a homosexual in Cameroon and how these young, courageous individuals try, in earnest, to help those facing persecution from an overall homophobic culture.
Born This Way starts with an intimate moment between two lovers, beautifully composed with the intimacy punctuated by candlelight, setting the tone early. This is not going to be a statistic-heavy documentary nor are the filmmakers going to discuss at length the history of Cameroon and/or Africa, as a whole, and it’s history of homophobia. Kadlec and Tullmann decide to go the character driven documentary route and they do so with great success following the trials, tribulations and joy of two young homosexuals, Cédric and Gertrude, currently living their lives in a place where homosexuality is criminalized.
Cédric and Gertrude also happen to work for the non-profit organization Alternatives Cameroun working towards equality, tolerance, and respect for people who suffer from social exclusion and fighting for human rights in Cameroon, especially for the rights of people who have sexual relations with people of the same sex. Many that work at Alternatives Cameroun also lend their time and talents helping Civil Rights lawyer Alice Nkom, and her organization, The Association to Defend Homosexuals. The filmmakers provide ample screen-time to all, but most of the documentary revolves around the lives of Cédric and Gertrude, captured in stunning cinéma-vérité.
Cédric lives in Douala and works as the director of HIV/AIDS education and prevention at Alternatives Cameroun and, like most people, just wants to make a difference in the world, helping people in need and, in his spare time, go out dancing having a good time with friends. A major source of strife in his life comes from the fact the people in Douala know that he is a gay man and, subsequently, starts to receive death threats; at one point, even given a personal, physical warning that he is not welcome in the neighborhood, made clear by the knife pressed against his chest.
Gertrude is a devout Catholic and works as a counselor at Alternatives Cameroun and seems to struggle with her faith along with her sexual orientation. She provides two of the film’s most intimate, tense and heart-wrenching moments. One of which being, coming out as a homosexual to the Mother Superior who helped raised her and cultivate her morals and ethics. The second moment, being one of the film most powerful, comes when Gertrude recalls a ghastly traumatic incident to her lover, both illuminated by a lone, flickering candle flame.
Kadlec and Tullmann, in what is their first documentary feature-length, have crafted Born This Way in the most powerful and affecting way possible – by simply letting the people living in the situation tell their stories with an infectious and earnest sincerity. The filmmakers rarely inject themselves into the film, which would have proved detrimental to the overall power of the story, instead the only time they are noticeable is when they are asking questions. Born This Way is, without a doubt, one of the most important documentaries of the year, highlighting the fight of a courageous LGBT community in the midst of a culture of hatred, persecution and inequality.