The Pearl of Africa is a 2016 documentary from a Swedish filmmaker (Jonny von Wallstrom) about a transgendered female in Uganda. It’s a curious pairing that the film doesn’t explain – even if for the sake of background. So we don’t know how they met. We don’t know how he heard about her. And we don’t know why he chose to do a documentary about her.
Pearl, which was recently screened at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne, follows Cleo as she talks about her life in Uganda, her relationship with her fiancée Nelson and the surgery she wants to have to finalize her transition.
But the film doesn’t clearly establish any of this at the outset (in fact, I didn’t even catch Cleo’s name until about two-thirds of the way through it), so you might be left wondering what this film is actually about until about for a noticeable part of it. This framing issue aside, The Pearl of Africa is very topical in presenting such a personal story about the life of a transgendered individual at a time when they’re continuing to gain visibility all over the world and demanding a spot at society’s proverbial table.
Cleo is also an engaging subject with a lot of personality and sparkle. Despite living in one of the most LGBT-oppressive countries, she carries on with an admirable boldness and determination to live her life on her own terms. And Nelson has his own shyish charm about him. His far more low-key personality balances well with Cleo’s.
A lot of the film focuses on their relationship. We see how much Cleo really loves Nelson and we see that Nelson is all in. And the film doesn’t make a huge sociopolitical statement about it. The camera simply captures who they are and leaves it on the screen. Cleo and Nelson talk about their future. They talk about being married. They talk about her surgery. And the film captures the authenticity of their interplays quite beautifully.
There’s also an ease to their dynamic that belies the oppressiveness of the society under which they exist – which the film touches only on very briefly. But by not devoting more time to that oppressive society, Cleo and Nelson’s relationship (and also the film itself) becomes more about their love for each other than a need to make a statement – which naturally becomes a much stronger statement in and of itself.
Eventually, the Cleo and Nelson have to leave Uganda for Thailand. But outside of a slate about Thailand emerging as a major destination for gender reassignment surgeries, the film doesn’t explain their relocation all that clearly. So you may once again be left to wonder if they missed something and then just going along with the story development regardless.
But at the end, Cleo completes her transition with Nelson by her side. And then you’re happy to have just gone along with the ride.