Johnny von Wallström

The Pearl of Africa: Making a transgender documentary in Uganda

Shot by Swedish filmmaker Johnny von Wallström, The Pearl of Africa tells the story of Cleopatra Kambugu, Uganda’s first transgender woman to openly share her transformation despite living in one of the world’s most transphobic places.

In 2014 a Ugandan newspaper called The Red Pepper published a list of the country’s top 200 homosexuals in which Cleopatra’s name featured, and in the same year the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed making same sex relationships illegal. Determined to push past the continuous prejudice she faces due to ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar, Cleopatra has bravely chosen to share her story to shift people’s attitudes around gender identity and expression.

While navigating life as a transgender woman in Uganda is central to The Pearl of Africa, the film focuses more on Cleo’s relationship with her husband and with herself, highlighting universal themes of love and hate that are seldom spoken about by the mainstream media in this context. We interviewed Johnny about the film’s origins and how he hopes this touching, human-centric story will be used to dispel myths about transgender people and the broader LGBTI community.

You’re a cinematographer turned self-shooting director. What influenced your creative journey and compels you to work in the medium of film?

I actually started my creative path as a web designer, which then led me to study digital post production for film. I learned graphic design, animation, motion gfx and grading for three years and that’s when I started playing around with film as medium. When I graduated, I was fed up with that and proceeded to follow a career as a stills photographer. I studied photography for a year and started freelancing at the same time. I also tried to get representation, but at that time nobody was interested in the realistic style I was drawn too. Everyone wanted over retouched images which led me to film again. I jumped into a film production course for a year to learn more about filmmaking. When I was done studying, I started a film and advertising company. We wanted to make fiction films but did commercial work to pay for our passion projects. At that time, I mainly worked as a photographer and cinematographer for a lot of big brands like Absolut Vodka, Pepsi and Telia. A lot of the work we did was branded content, long before people started calling it that. One of the things I’m most proud of was a coffee table book we did for a real estate company which was a time document of the creatives working in a suburb of Stockholm. It was like a 1.0 of what I’m doing now with Three years later, we bet all our money on a 30 minute film that we thought would be our ticket into Festival de Cannes. That sort of happened, but we also went bankrupt so I started freelancing as a photographer, cinematographer and editor which I have done ever since (fiction, advertisements, TV and documentary). Today, it’s changed a bit since we started Creative North, where I’m directing and shooting. Sometimes I shoot myself like in my filmmaking vlog and sometimes other people like Cleo.

I think a lot of Western journalists and doc filmmakers are lazy. Maybe it’s because of their bosses not giving them the time they need to understand a story but that’s just a bad excuse. Too many people steal other people’s stories for their own glory.

The Pearl of Africa is a powerful documentary. What inspired you to share Cleo’s story with the world?

At first, I was interested in the anti-gay bill because I have Ugandan friends who are homophobic. But an early inspiration for the project idea was Michael Winterbottom’s In this world. I love that film and wanted to create a refugee portrait like it but in the Ugandan gay context. Then there were a lot of films and media reports on that subject and I felt like that story got kind of infected. So, in 2013 I thought it would be easier to get homophobic people to understand LGBTQ people through a trans story.

Then I went to Uganda to try and find someone who could help capture that story. I was introduced to Cleo through friends and was so overwhelmed with her determination. She had already decided she wanted to transition in the open. It was supposed to be a film about her and her family but later it turned into a love story which I think is a 1000 times stronger than I ever imagined. I really wanted it to be universal – something anybody can relate to. And love makes that possible. They’re such strong characters and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them. It’s weird how the process is, I set out to make a refugee film but then started filming a character who wasn’t a refugee and thought I had abandoned that idea, but in the end it turned out to be a stronger and more unique refugee story than the one I set out to make.


Uganda has an anti-homosexual bill. Cleo’s name appeared in The Red Pepper which exposed 200 homosexuals in the country, and she’s also the first trans woman to openly transition. How did you meet and convince her to share her journey?

I was introduced to Cleo through friends in Uganda. She had already decided she wanted to transition in the open and had tried to find local filmmakers to shoot her but they were too afraid. It was important to me that it was her decision to make the film and have the surgery so that I wasn’t unconsciously forcing it upon her. And, because she had made that decision for herself, it was never an issue. It was a bigger obstacle to make her understand that I wanted to capture her story and that I wasn’t interested in telling my perspective of it. Sure, it’s being filtered through me, but the voice and narrative was always meant to be Cleo’s personal voice. I try to filter out what I think is essential to tell her story in the strongest way I can, but its always a risk to take, sometimes you miss important personal details because of that. This is why it was really important to me to get to know Cleo on a deep personal level. This was one reason for me moving in to live with them so that I really could understand their lives better and to do justice to their story.

How did you go about creating the documentary? Can you tell us a bit about the process from start to finish?

We started the project without funding, but always wanted to work closely with the activist movement in Uganda to create change through the project. Because of the limited funding, we had to adapt the idea to our reality. We always wanted the project to start as a web series, but at first it was about 5 characters, then when we didn’t have the money to do all 5  so we decided to focus on Cleo. Together with The Huffington Post, we launched the web series in 2014 together with a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for Cleo’s sex reassignment surgery. The series really helped make people understand that it was more than a vanity surgery. That it was about life and death. The series was a huge international success and afterwords we thought it would be easy to fund the feature film. Turned out it wasn’t. We were denied funding and had to finish the film on our own. Then we got into a competition at Hot Docs and everything changed. All of a sudden we got some funding to finish the film and people started to notice the project. So, a lot of our own money, time and energy has gone into the project. But I’m happy it’s finally finished.

Johnny von WallstömJohnny von WallstömJohnny von Wallstöm

What were some of the challenges and risks you faced during and after filming?

The biggest challenge was funding the project and keeping Cleo and Nelson safe. Without doing advertising work, this film wouldn’t exist. We always had to go back after a shoot to do commercial work to cover the expenses and to pay our bills. I went alone to shoot and we were able to keep costs at a minimum. Of course there were also security risks, especially when Cleo was outed in Red Pepper. We stopped filming until we knew how that would turn out. But it’s been great to work with someone who is aware of the risks she’s taking because she’s made calculated decisions. 

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken against Western journalists telling African stories without sensibility. How do you create work without allowing a eurocentric lens to distort the story you’re telling?

I think a lot of Western journalists and doc filmmakers are lazy. Maybe it’s because of their bosses not giving them the time they need to understand a story but that’s just a bad excuse. Too many people steal other people’s stories for their own glory. This isn’t really a question of who has the right to tell their own story, cause a lot of people don’t have the level that’s needed tell a international cinematic movie like this, which is the criteria for getting funded in the first place. Apparently, I didn’t even have it cause it took forever to get it funded. With that access to funding there comes a huge responsibility that I think many media people take for granted.

For this particular project, Cleo had tried to find a Ugandan to tell her story but they were afraid. So, there are definitely times when an outsider is a good thing. I think because the general narrative in journalism and media worldwide is very focused on their own connection to a story, rather than their human relationship and identification to it, they often tell stories in a way that is what they’ve already decided it should be. Too me, it’s a naive and an uneducated thing to do. Unfortunately, it is over represented everywhere. I think because we have the budgets to tell stories about foreign subjects, we in the West are over represented as ignorant journalists telling our worldviews. In Sweden there was a study of how updated the Swedes’ worldview is in terms of poverty and education. They had under 10% right, but the scary thing is that the media had almost identical statistics.

Johnny von Wallström

If you’re not willing or don’t have the resources to do a story justice, you should definitely consider using local journalists with experience of the subject. If you do go to a place or story you don’t know, you need to really take your time to understand the story on a deeper level. Unfortunately, in this fast paced media world that’s not common practice. I wish more journalists would be aware of the implications their naivety on a subject can have. When I go to places, I go with a mission to try to understand and I don’t care so much about what I come back with.

My mission is to understand and then build a story from that understanding. I feel like many go to a place with their mind made up on what they want to say. They go with their team from their home country and don’t really need to understand the people or context fully to tell their pre-determined story. I like to go alone because it forces me to live and interact with people I don’t know. It forces you to engage and get to know people on personal level. I wish more people would take pride in doing justice to the people they tell stories about.

People in the media should just be aware of how their opinion and worldview can create bad shit around the world, even if it’s not their intention.

Has there been any difference in the way African and European audiences have viewed the film?

Overall, I think it’s quite similar. LGBTQ people seem to have a much more personal and deeper experience which is understandable. Sadly some people in the West have been distracted by information I’ve deliberately kept out, like how she got money for the surgery – just fucking google it and you’ll know. I mean, it’s not like the crowd-funding is a secret. Too me, this just says that they think Africans are poor or that they want an antagonist like the Evangelicals and Museveni portrayed by the Western media. But that is making it too simplistic, and I think mostly too an uneducated way of looking at it, which I don’t think most Africans have. I hope Cleo and Nelson come across as people who we all can identify with. At least that was what I tried to make them out to be.

Focusing on the surgery and sex in details I think is a sexist thing to do as a CIS-gendered filmmaker.

What surprised you the most about the making the film and what have you learnt on a personal level from the experience?

I’ve learned so much about gender identities and male culture in the world. I’ve always felt weird in the macho culture and that’s probably why I was drawn to this story in the first place. Really getting to know the trans community has been great. There are so many people that I’ve met through this project that’s really helped me to understand gender. I wish more people would get out of their comfort zone and meet people they don’t normally meet, then we’d hopefully have less racism and discrimination and more love. It’s amazing what it means to people, how it can save you and how it helps people to evolve as human beings. Then of course on an artistic level I’ve advanced 100 levels through this project. Finally, I kind of feel like I know what I’m doing. It only took 10 years of making films to get there.


Some reviews have said that the film focuses too much on Cleo and her relationship with her husband. What are your thoughts on this?

That’s exactly what I wanted the film to be. I didn’t want the film to be about the bill, being trans or how the surgery takes place. Focusing on the surgery and sex in details I think is a sexist thing to do as a CIS-gendered filmmaker. Those details are so unimportant too me and people who missed it are most definitely CIS-gendered. It’s a human love story. Some people have a hard time identifying with them and they will then complain. If that’s the film you want to see then go watch some of the other millions of films out there about that. But if you can see beyond gender or colour you will love the film. How can you not? Cleo and Nelson are amazing.

The Pearl of Africa is also about starting a grassroots movement and educating people. What is the most important thing you want people know?

We’re working on how to get the project into education right now. We want to create community screenings around the world, especially in East Africa. To talk about the issues covered in the film from a more human perspective. I don’t care so much about the politics of all of this, so I hope the film can shift focus towards acknowledging trans people as normal human beings first. Then from there hopefully interesting discussions can start about gender. And that we essentially can get away from this macho bullshit. Look, I paint my nails, like masculine and feminine clothes and I’m not afraid to talk about my feelings. But I also love fight sports. And I could definitely beat up a much larger man if I had to. Why is that so weird for people?

Johnny von Wallstöm

The Pearl of Africa is screening at the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival between 2-12 June.

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