I’ve just watched “The Pearl of Africa,” a lovely, intimate documentary by Swedish filmmaker Johnny von Wallström about a transgender woman who left Uganda for her safety after being outed in a national newspaper. (A free web series is here.) The backdrop of this is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill signed by President Museveni, which called for severe punishment and even death to gay people. It was later overturned, in part because of the negative international reaction it attracted, but homosexual acts remain illegal and LGBT people are still hugely stigmatized. Meanwhile, activists have rallied and there is, at least, a supportive community.
But this isn’t a film about activism. It’s a love story about Cleopatra Kambugu and her boyfriend, Nelson. Cleo and Nellie’s chemistry will stir your soul and melt your heart. They were in their 20s when this was filmed. The scenes of them tending to each other, flirting, and idly chatting are so tender and romantic – they captivated me. Nellie accompanies Cleo to Thailand to have gender reassignment surgery, and they’re now living in Kenya. Seeing them together will make you happy. That’s a crucial way to build allies.
And, yet… I’ve read interviews with the filmmaker (my favorite is here) and he notes various criticisms and why he wanted to focus on Cleo and Nellie’s relationship. I understand that and it’s his choice.
But I’m sorry he didn’t include two important questions.
Q1: How did Cleo afford the surgery? For that matter, the couple doesn’t seem to have an income, which I wondered about throughout the film.
Q2: How did they end up together? In my experience and from everything I’ve read, most (not all!) transwomen identify as lesbians and those who don’t often have a difficult time finding men to be with. Nothing right or wrong with that, just is.
So to me, an above-average-invested viewer, those omissions were glaring. But beyond that, for the regular viewer, I think the background would have informed and illuminated. Here are the answers.
A1: Cleo’s surgery was financed via crowd-funding initiated by the director. I think this should have been disclosed, both for ethical reasons and because individuals’ donating is evidence that Cleo had supporters.
A2: Nellie is attracted to transgender women. In this awesome and open interview with Cleo, she says Nellie struggled with that, wondering what it was all about. With this knowledge, viewers would have seen a deeper version of Nellie and learned a bit along the way.
As a journalist, I definitely lean toward disclosure. As a writer, I know that when creating work, it’s as much about what you leave out as what you include. Those personal decisions create the body of work.
Overall, this is a beautiful film. Viewers will want to sign up as members of the Cleo and Nellie fan club early on. I hope the light continues to shine on them and that one day Uganda will embrace all their humans and Cleo and Nellie can return home. (If you want to learn more about the situation in Uganda, visit Sexual Minorities Uganda, a rights group there.)