Hot Docs 2016: The Pearl of Africa

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In an age when the sight of celebrities such as Lavern Cox and Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of mainstream magazines signaled a huge step forward for the transgendered community, the path towards acceptance is sadly still as rocky as it ever was. Recent laws passed in Mississippi and North Carolina serve as stark reminders that ignorance and fear still trump learning and understanding in the minds of some. If these laws have taken parts of the United States back to the segregated sixties, then what is occurring in Uganda right now is straight out of the dark ages.

Carrying some of the most horrifying anti-LGBT laws in the world, including ones that threatens life imprisonment for homosexuality and death for repeat offenders, Uganda has fostered a systemic culture of hate. One that has forced those in the LGBT community, such as Cleopatra Kambugu, a young transwoman, to become prisoners in their own home. Outed by a popular tabloid in her town of Kampala, Cleopatra, like many others in her predicament, can no longer live the normal life she craves with boyfriend Nelson. She has lost her job and been disowned by relatives who worry about the ramifications that might come if they are associated with her. Fearful of violence, some of which has already resulted in death, at the hands of those following a mob mentality, she is forced to flee to her homeland.

Following Cleopatra as she prepares to undergo gender confirmation surgery, and wrestles with the reverberations of the notorious laws, The Pearl of Africa puts a human face to plight of transgendered individuals in Uganda. The most stunning aspect of director Jonny von Wallström film is not the hateful rhetoric that the anti-LGBT protesters spew, but rather that the film is actually an emotionally rich love story. By focusing on the relationship between Cleopatra and Nelson, von Wallström hits the point home that, regardless of our country of origin or our sexual orientation, we all deserve the right and freedom to be able to love who we want.

It would have been easy for the film to mainly focus on the absurdities of the unjust laws Uganda has put in place. However, it is a far tougher task conveying the power of love in a subtle yet effective way. That is exactly what Jonny von Wallström does with The Pearl of Africa. He masterfully crafts a film where it genuinely feels like love can conquer all. There is something kinetic in the quiet moments von Wallström captures of the couple. It helps to make the gravity of the situation in Uganda to resonate deeply.

Despite the sad fact that the majority of the population supports the strict laws, and even condones violent mob attacks on members of the LGBT community, The Pearl of Africa still carries a sense of hope for the future. One where individuals like Cleopatra can simply live a life free of persecution or judgment. Proving that the light of love can withstand the darkness of hate, The Pearl of Africa is a film we all need right now.

Screens:
Saturday, April 30, 9:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 1, 11:30 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 8, 3:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.