Why did you choose to make a film about the LGBT experience in Cameroon, and how does it resonate with an American audience?
This film is incredibly personal, and it asks the viewer to live in the lives of the Cameroonian LGBT for an hour and a half. I think it goes deeper into the human experience than other films about gay rights, and I think it doesn’t have as strong of an activist agenda. But our film is really about love and belonging and how you connect to other humans, situated in the particular experience of being LGBT in Cameroon.
Was this your first artistic collaboration with your co-director Deb Tullmann?
Actually, our very first collaboration was in third grade. We had to memorize a poem together and recite it like a choral reading. It was a Victorian poem called “Little Boy Blue.” It’s this bleak poem about this little boy dying, probably inappropriate for a third grader, but it was from the perspective of his toys missing him because he’s gone to heaven. So that was actually our first collaboration. And then we did drama in high school together, and went our separate ways for college, and then reconnected after. We were talking on the phone one day and she was like, “I’m doing this documentary project,” and I was like, “I’m doing this documentary project!” So we both had found documentary separately, and so it felt really natural to ask her to do Born This Way together.
How did you approach the filmmaking process?
We wanted as much as we could to capture things as they are, and not as we think they are, or want them to be, which can be a very problematic dynamic. With that goal in mind, every day when we would shoot we would get together and ask, “What did we see today? What did we learn? What did we capture? How does that change what we thought we knew when we were shooting before, and how does that change where we think we are going?” Every day we would reevaluate what it is we think we want, so that we were not holding onto some uninformed idea of what we thought the story should be before we had really lived it with them.
How did you go about crafting those strong relationships with the subjects in the film?
I think those strong relationships came from trusting what they thought and cared about and believed was important – trusting and following that. So Gertrude was like, “I really want you to come and meet my aunt.” Instead of responding like ugh, who is this aunt, I don’t want to meet this person, how is that part of the story, we thought, okay, this is important to you, and so we will go, and we will film, and see what’s there. The aunt doesn’t make it into the film, but we have footage of her. I think it creates this feeling of real respect, that we truly respect her and aren’t just trying to manipulate her. Clearly Gertrude especially felt this connection, given that intimate scene between her and her lover.
That conversation in candlelight, and really all of the best stuff in the film, was completely unplanned. That day, our plan was to go home with Gertrude and to just film her hanging out at her apartment, cooking dinner. We left work with her and filmed the ride home and it took us like two hours to get to her house, and when we finally got there it was already getting dark, and then the power went out right as we arrived. So we were like, “Great, there’s no electricity, so we can’t film.” And then her girlfriend at the time came over, who we didn’t expect to see and had never met in person, and then they lit these candles and Deb and I said to each other, “Whoa, wait a minute, this is very beautiful, and I think this is a low-light sensitive camera and maybe it could capture this.” So we set up, and they started talking, and we didn’t really know what they were talking about a lot of the time – there was a translator with us but it wasn’t like he was doing a real time translation. So that moment was really just about saying yes to what fell all around us. And I think the intimate feeling and the darkness probably encouraged them to open up to each other in a way that they wouldn’t have if we were sitting with lights and a camera on them directly.
Another resonant scene was the conversation in the cab between the cab driver and the woman who had just been put on trial for witchcraft and homosexuality. Was this also an unplanned scene or did you provoke the conversation?
In the cab scene we literally did not know what they were talking about. Deb was just practicing with the camera because it’s really hard to get focus in the car with a DSLR and so she was just getting some B-roll out the window and shots of the woman and the driver. Then it sounded like they were talking about something intense and we thought, okay just keep filming and she kept at it – we didn’t even get the microphones out of the trunk, it is just the little low-quality in-camera mics. The translator was in the car, but he was asleep, and we didn’t even know what that footage was until we had it translated later, and then we were like, “What? What were they talking about? “
It seems like the language barrier was actually helpful in this case because it allowed the two of them to broach a subject they might not have had you all spoken the same language.
Yeah. And I think that sometimes we would be more willing to just roll because we weren’t saying, “Sounds like the conversation is over, so let’s just stop.” We would roll longer, and commit, and film. And that was often where magical stuff would happen. I grapple with that a lot now working in English. Should I cut? I wouldn’t cut if this were in French—I would have waited until the conversation reached its natural conclusion between the participants without judging at the time if it was “of interest” or not.
How did you convince the subjects to be a part of film, especially when it could put them in danger?
They wanted to do it. We came to Cameroon and we explained the project and talked to everyone that worked at Alternatives Cameroon, and we had a very long conversation on camera about what it could mean and how dangerous it was, so they understood. One thing that Yves, the director of the LGBT center, said is “We are tired of pretending like we don’t exist in Cameroon.”
Are there LGBT representations in the media in Cameroon or are there black queer representations from the United States that are reaching Cameroon to help improve LGBT visibility in the country?
One thing that’s fascinating is the huge impact that popular culture in the United States has on the rest of the world. The people in Cameroon we met are obsessed with it. They are watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. They are interested in pop culture in general, and especially African-American culture. So nobody there showed me examples of queer African-American representations in pop culture that they were consuming. They had some white representations. You could see Will and Grace and Lady Gaga, but it’s so complicated that the only queer culture they see is how it is portrayed in popular media. Average people in Cameroon and those in the film are just seeing the most mainstream stuff, which isn’t an accurate representation of LGBT people. There are moments of truth and accuracy and honesty, but we know it’s crafted to have as wide an appeal as possible..
How does your film help to diversify the image of black LGBT communities?
We hardly see African-American queer people represented, and we never see African queer people anywhere. So in that way it is one of the first films to try to allow people into that world, which is a secret world by necessity for survival—which is another reason it is really hard to represent.
Do you see any parallels or differences between the struggle for LGBT rights in the U.S. versus in Cameroon?
The fundamental struggle is to live your life as who you are without external forces stopping you. And that is common completely. In Cameroon right now the external forces are threatening safety – your physical safety, ability to have housing, ability to work. When people find out that you are gay, those things are absolutely at risk and it is considered OK in that culture to take those things away from someone who is queer. But, I don’t want to impose an idea that Cameroon is on the same track of “progress” as we are. We in the Global North should not be defining that for them.. I don’t think it looks like the United States, and one thing I hear very often that people will say is, “The way Cameroon is now reminds me of how it was in the United States in the fifties. And look how far we’ve come.” And there is certainly some truth to that – it was illegal, there were raids, and people had to hide. And it is amazing how far we have come, but I don’t feel at all comfortable placing Cameroon on that same continuum. There is a really similar kind of passion in both places for greater equality.
I will say that the overall struggles for livelihood are so much stronger in Cameroon right now. It’s so much harder to get a job, to get good healthcare, to get a good education, those things all layer on top of the LGBT issues, and so it makes it even harder to work for these kinds of rights. But they don’t make them less important.
What is an appropriate way to engage with the struggle for rights in Cameroon while also avoiding cultural interloping?
The first step is to absolutely make sure that you are listening. In the same way the fundamental technique of the film is to listen, I think any kind of advocate or activist who wants to support Cameroonians should never assume that they know what the people in Cameroon need. During our time there, many Cameroonian activists told us that they need funding to be able to do this work. But they also need it not to look like outsiders are swooping in and trying to impose our values on them. They need us to be kind of in the background, and they need us to be patient and understand this is going to take a long time.
Why did you decide on Born This Way as the title of the film? Do you believe that being gay has a genetic origin?
Well, the people in the film believe that they were born this way, and that gives them courage to assert themselves. They are Christian and they believe that God made them this way, and that it wasn’t a mistake and they are not possessed by demons or sick, which is what so many other people believe. It may be that, yes, the science is not yet thoroughly researched and, yes, there are those who might choose to be gay, but in this context, the concept of being born this way is very much a strong inspiration for them personally and for the community. Something we heard again and again was, “With things as hard as they are here, why would I ever choose to be gay?” And that’s a very valid question. In a practical sense I think a simplification of this question is helping LGBT Cameroonians right now. It is a way for them to fight a very dangerous misconception.
What projects can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am working on a documentary on the Social Secretaries of the White House, from the Johnson Administration all the way to the present. And I am also working on a documentary about the experience of being a foster youth in the United States. I am taking a similar approach to Born This Way and looking at their personal experiences as a way to open up a larger discussion about the foster care system.