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Born This Way: Berlin Review

Born This Way Film Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

DIY doc highlights gay-rights struggle in West Africa.

Venue

Berlin Panorama

Directors

Shaun Kadlec, Deb Tullmann

First-time feature-makers meet LGBT campaigners risking their lives in Cameroon.

BERLIN - Premiering at the Berlinale this week, Born This Way documents the growing struggle for gay rights in the West African nation of Cameroon, where homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison. It marks the feature-length debut of its young American directors, Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, who shot guerrilla-style while visiting the country on tourist visas. This self-produced documentary will very likely tour festivals focused on human rights and sexuality issues, but it feels a little too thin and homemade for theatrical release. Television sales seem a more likely prospect.

Unrelated to Lady Gaga beyond a fleeting conversational reference midway through, Born This Way is part of a small but growing subgenre of documentaries about the increasingly visible LGBT scene in Africa. It follows the award-winning Call Me Kuchu by Malika Zouhall-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, about the Ugandan gay-rights martyr David Kato, which premiered in Berlin a year ago. A much more DIY affair, this film suffers by comparison, lacking the same compelling mix of stylistic flair, political depth and -- to be blunt -- marketable tragedy.

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That said, examples highlighted here of homophobic discrimination in Cameroon range from the grimly absurd to the utterly horrific. Public humiliation, intimidation and death threats are daily rituals for the two central case studies, Gertrude and Cedric. A carload of men are pulled over and arrested for dressing flamboyantly. Gay people in small villages are accused of witchcraft and ostracized. Most sickening of all, Gertrude recalls surviving a brutal street attack and gang rape that left one of her friends dead.

Thankfully, there are also hopeful, humane and even humorous touches here. Alice Nkom is a prominent lawyer who routinely defends LGBT clients against state persecution, often risking her own life in the process. A long sequence in which one of her lesbian clients is driven to safety by a curious driver who interrogates her about her sexuality with childlike bafflement is full of revealing comedy. Another scene, in which Gertrude nervously comes out to the Catholic Mother Superior who helped raise her, is also quietly moving, if not quite the emotional sucker-punch it could have been.

More rigorous film-makers might have probed this connection further, unpicking the links between Christian colonialism and homophobia in modern Africa, as well as the internal conflicts that religion arouses in gay Christians like Gertrude. Some broader socio-political context would also have been welcome, examining whether persecution is influenced by local cultural factors, such as attitudes towards AIDS or tensions between Cameroon’s Francophone majority and Anglophone minority. Well-meaning but worthy, Born This Way is a small film about a big subject. It will not be the last.

Venue: Berlin Panorama screening, February 10

Producers: Deb Tullmann, Shaun Tullmann

Directors: Shaun Kadlec, Deb Tullmann

Cinematographers: Shaun Kadlec, Deb Tullmann

Editor: Josh Peterson

Music: Joan Jeanrenaud

Rating TBC, 82 minutes