Hot Docs 2016: ‘The Pearl of Africa’ and ‘Putuparri and the Rainmakers’

The Pearl of Africa (DIR. Jonny von Wallström)

By: Shannon Page

Director Jonny von Wallström’s first full-length documentary is the story of Cleopatra Kambugu, a transgender woman living in Uganda who is forced to leave her country after a bill is passed making her gender identity punishable by life in prison or even execution.  The Pearl of Africa follows Cleo as she travels from Uganda to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery.

Through Cleo’s voice-over narration and exchanges between her and long-term partner, Nelson, about their first languages, the film emphasizes the cultural and linguistic diversity of Uganda in a manner that sharply juxtaposes the countries rejection of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations.

While the documentary isn’t the most flawless film (the soundtrack, in particular, is unnecessarily sentimental and there are a few too many flashbacks in the second half), The Pearl of Africa is arguably one of the most important documentaries I’ve seen in recent years.

The Pearl of Africa’s major achievement is its ability to look beyond Cleo’s struggle and to document something that is so often left out of transgender people’s stories: the possibility for love and acceptance.  In one of the film’s most moving moments, Nelson reflects on the way that he has grown as a person through his relationship with Cleo and his involvement in the Ugandan transgender community.  Their affection and support that they offer one another, despite the danger that their relationship and Cleo’s identity poses to them both, provides a welcome note of optimism that is so often left out of these kinds of narratives.

Catch The Pearl of Africa at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on:

Saturday, April 30 at 9:30 p.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 1 at 11:30 a.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 8 at 3:00 p.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox


Putuparri and the Rainmakers (DIR. Nicole Ma)

By: Shahbaz Khayambashi

Putuparri and the Rainmakers takes a biographical slant, looking at the life of Putuparri and – through him – the history of his nomadic tribe who have lived tens of thousands of years in Western Australia.

Putuparri is an interesting individual and he certainly has a lot to say, but the biographical structure harms the doc.  Despite the great history behind his tribe of rainmakers and the millennia of oppression, the majority of the film is about Putuparri – that story is not particularly engrossing.

The film is not a complete failure though.  Nicole Ma’s film is full of beautiful shots – both historical and contemporary – of the Aboriginals’ vast Australian lands, urban Australian cities, and the activities of the Aboriginals in their day-to-day lives.  Also, you really have to appreciate that Putuparri and the Rainmakers has a distinct aboriginal voice to it.  Even from the very beginning, a title card warns Aboriginal viewers that the film contains the voices of deceased individuals.  The occasional Caucasian appears to issue a different perspective but, for the most part, this admirable documentary is about Aboriginals told by Aboriginals.

Catch Putuparri and the Rainmakers at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on:

Sunday, May 1 at 7:15 p.m. @ Innis Town Hall

Tuesday, May 3 at 12:30 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre

Sunday, May 8 at 4:30 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre


Click here for more festival details and to buy tickets.

Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:

Shannon Page: @ShannonEvePage

Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam

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