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Interview: When Faith Turns Into Fire - Roger Ross Williams on 'God Loves Uganda' (Tonight On PBS' Independent Lens)

Shadow and Act By Nijla Mumin | Shadow and Act May 19, 2014 at 8:12PM

Interview: When Faith Turns Into Fire - Roger Ross Williams on 'God Loves Uganda' (Tonight On PBS' Independent Lens)
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Director Roger Ross Williams with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Reverend Kapya Kaoma
Director Roger Ross Williams with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Reverend Kapya Kaoma

Editor's Note: After a successful film festival run, and a limited theatrical release, the acclaimed documentary finally makes its broadcast TV debut TONIGHT, on PBS' documentary series Independent Lens, which means many more of you will now be able to see it. It airs at 10PM, but you're encouraged to check your local listings for the most up-to-date broadcast information. Below is our interview with the director of the film, Roger Ross Williams, handled by Nijla Mumin, reposted ahead of tonight's TV debut, for those who missed it, or who would like to revisit.

“We're being attacked,” says one of the young American missionaries as they drive a van through a group of Ugandans selling chicken on the side of the road. When they stop to patronize the Ugandans, they bring forceful messages of Jesus, selling them like a commodity. This scene, ripe with the fundamentalist fervor, is one of many in Roger Ross Williams' compelling, disturbing documentary God Loves Uganda, which opened Friday in NYC and next weekend in Los Angeles. The film examines the role of White American evangelical missionaries in propagating some of the most potent, harmful rhetoric associated with Christianity; that homosexuality is a crime punishable by prison and even death. 

As the young missionaries journey through Uganda using their whiteness, energy, and conviction to win over locals, Ugandan pastors are trained by American evangelical veterans to win the cultural wars that have been lost in America, while fattening their pockets with American funds to spread the gospel. Williams delivers a wonderfully balanced portrait of the evangelical movement, punctuated by those who oppose it, including an incredibly humanist Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. One can sense a comfort in the interviewees, results of the rapport Williams built with them, even as he exposes the hypocrisy and inconsistencies in their beliefs.

Williams, the first African American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film, spoke with me over the phone about the process of making the project, why he decided to emphasize American missionaries, and when he feared for his own life during filming.

Shadow & Act: What informed your decision to emphasize the missionaries and the work that they were doing, and at what point did you come to that decision?  Also, if you could talk about the process of making the film any particular challenges you faced there?

Roger Ross Williams: When I first got to Uganda, the first person that I met was (the activist) David Kato, and I could’ve gone in a number of directions. I thought about following the activists, but after sitting down and talking to David and a bunch of other activists there, he said,“ you know what we really would love is a film about the work that the American fundamentalists are doing in our country, and how they were destroying their lives and the lives of the LGBTI community,” and for me, that really struck a nerve because I grew up in the church, my family was in the church- my father, my sister are ministers so it really spoke to me, and the church I grew up in was not accepting of me as a gay person so it was really a natural direction for me to go with the story.

And as I began to come into the story to see how many missionaries there were and how big of a movement it was in Uganda, I saw that even the plane to Uganda was filled with American missionaries. It’s the number one destination for missionaries in Africa and maybe the world, so it was a natural thing.

And as far as challenges, there were of course many. Here I am, a gay man in a place talking to people who believed I was a sinner, and many believed that I should be imprisoned and in some cases killed for my sexuality, so I had to be very careful about revealing my own sexuality in Uganda at least. But there was a moment where someone outed me, someone sent an email to one of the missionaries outing me and I got ambushed basically. I got a call to dinner by one of the anti-gay pastors and there was a big group there and they surrounded me and I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really scary, I was there with my cameraman and my crew and we were all frightened. They told us we couldn’t film, but in the end, they decided that they were going to pray for me to cure me instead of kill me. So there was a lot of praying that went on over me but it didn’t really work. 

S&A: That’s so interesting. I was actually reading some of your director’s statement and you’re talking about how a lot of the missionaries were very nice and charming, but there’s this paradox of what they’re spreading and how it leads to this hatred. So, I’m wondering if you can talk about if they have any idea of the repercussions. It’s just an interesting thing that they seem nice and sweet, but on the other end, there’s a really violent undercurrent that’s happening.

RRW: For me, I wanted to focus on the ground game in Uganda- the kids who are really well-meaning and innocent and who are going door to door, to convince Ugandans to fight against what they perceive as sin, and I think that they naively don’t know the repercussions of that. They don’t understand the culture they’re going into. These kids are from the American Midwest and they’re going into an African culture that they don’t know anything about. And they’re preaching to people twice their age, and who have their own life experiences, and telling them, follow our belief, follow what we believe and they don’t even bother to ask them what do you feel or what are your beliefs, so it struck me as very imperialistic, it struck me as sort of racist and condescending but I don’t think they realize that when they bring that message that homosexuality is sinful and homosexuals should be cured, and all of these ideas from America, they don’t understand it’s taken very differently in a culture in Uganda where people often take the law into their own hands as David Kato said in the film.

And the thing about is that they know what they’re doing, especially their leaders, because Lou Engle, the leader of International House of Prayer- and they are just one of the many churches working in Africa- they believe that they’ve lost the culture wars here in America. They’ve all said that to me, “America and the west is lost, we’re winning in the global south. We’re winning in Africa,” so they believe that there’s a spiritual warfare, that there’s a battle between good and evil and that Africa, because of what they represent, as White Americans, they represent money and power and wealth. They get people’s attention and they’re winning their battle.

S&A: I remember the scene where missionaries are in a van being sold chicken on a stick from some of Ugandans, and I recall a line one of them said: “We’re being attacked” and I was struck by that and their whiteness- the power to influence and get attention. I was wondering if they had any understanding of their whiteness- and you touched on it in your answer, of the fact that it draws attention. I’ve been to South Africa as an African American. I don’t know that I will have that same ability to get that type of attention as a white person.

RRW: I think they’re well aware of their power as white Americans and I think that even when you hear the girl and she says “I come all the way across the ocean to send you this message” and you know that woman sitting in that hut has never been on an airplane, and she’s never traveled outside of Uganda or even her village and it’s intimidating, and in a way it’s like playing a power game, it’s like “I’ve flown all across the ocean to bring you this message” and people listen to them because of what America represents and what they represent.

America has done a really good job, Hollywood has done a very good job of selling the American dream and the American influence and America is the most powerful country on earth so if you’re a poor African person who is sick and you’re worried about where the next meal is going to come from, worrying about how you’re going to make a living, you’re going to say, look here comes this powerful American and maybe they can help me.  I should listen to them. And they take advantage of that.

S&A: Yes, there were so many thought-provoking parts of the film but there’s a scene where you’re in one of the church rooms and converted people were chanting to themselves, almost violently, and walking back and forth, and it was forming this really eerie chorus, and I just wonder what your position as a filmmaker in that kind of environment is. What were your thoughts in those situations? How did you remain neutral or a part of the environment?

RRW: I’m always aware that I’m there to tell a story and my own personal feelings, I have to put aside because I’m there as a vehicle to bring the story to a bigger audience, so I put my personal feelings aside whether it’s in that room or I’m sitting there and someone’s telling me gay people are worse than dogs. I sacrifice my own feelings but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me. When I would go home at night, and even when I would come back from a shoot, I would spend a couple of weeks being traumatized by it all but its not to say that on a day to day basis, especially with the American evangelicals that I spent a lot of time with, that we didn’t become friends and get to know each other. We shared meals together and hung out together, and the walls that divide us begin to come down on both sides and I think that’s one of the goals of the film, and especially our outreach campaign is to begin a dialogue. 

We just finished a tour of Africa with the film, and it was amazing because we screened the film often in many countries, from Nigeria to South Africa with members of the faith community and the LGBTI community and had discussions afterward and although discussions sometimes got really heated, but as the two sides started to talk to each other, there was a sort of an understanding and a couple of pastors took back their anti-gay statements and said “we have never actually met a gay person.” It was like the gay boogeyman, like gay people were this monster that is coming to destroy their community and their family. When they saw and had a dialogue with gay people, they were like, wait a minute, they are not the monsters they were made out to be.

S&A: That’s really powerful.

RRW: Yeah, it was amazing. The whole tour was really eye-opening and watching the film with an African audience was just a different experience for me because an African audience got things and subtleties in the film that American audiences just didn’t pick-up on, and there was a deeper understanding and the conversation afterward was so much richer because it wasn’t just this simple story of American evangelicals coming to their continent and coming to their country to preach the gospel, but it was all the subtle stuff. I remember we had a screening in Kenya and one of the things I tried to do in the film is bring a lot of humor into it, and it’s important to me that it’s not just dark, and that you see this kind of absurdity. And the Kenyan women were laughing hysterically through the whole film and the first person that stood up said, "you know, if this wasn’t so tragic, it would be a comedy."

S&A: I definitely got that. There’s a shot you have of one of the Ugandan pastor’s houses and it was such a nice, big, white house and it made me laugh. Just to think about how wealthy this person is in contrast to his followers.

RRW: Yeah, religion in Africa is a big, big business. The pastors are the rock stars of the countries and pastors like Robert Kayanja that teach at the Prosperity Gospel, ends up being one of the richest people in the country, and he was taught at Prosperity gospel and trained in America and mentored by one of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, T.L.Osborne from Oklahoma. I think they plucked him from obscurity at age 17 and said you are going to be one of the most powerful pastors in this country and they created him, and he is now.

This is such a huge amount of money that flows into Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa so you find presidents and leaders, pastors, and politicians wanting to gain favor and that’s why a lot of times, a pastor like Martin Ssempa who is one of the biggest anti-gay pastors in Uganda, he’s playing to his American funders when he throws an anti-gay rally. He’s basically putting on a show, showing porn in church-

S&A: That was horrible.

RRW: He’s like: “Look how I am such a warrior for you. And I know you’re frustrated in America and marriage equality is being passed state by state, and the supreme court is passing these rulings, and you’re still frustrated in your country and you’re losing the culture war but look, in Uganda, it’s a Nirvana for you. Send us money.” And he gets it.

S&A: I’ve been reading reviews and audience reactions and people are really impacted by this film and disturbed by it. I know you’ve spoken about the dialogues between the missionaries, pastors, and the people they’re trying to convert, but what other actions would you suggest viewers take, when they finish watching the film and are filled with emotion and the need to do something?

RRW: We have a campaign with Allout.org which is “keep hate out of the collection plate” and it’s about more transparency from where the money is flowing because there’s a lot of unknowing people thinking they are giving to good work and missionaries, and missionaries are doing a lot of great work in Africa, but some of that money goes to fund Martin Ssempa and others who are running hatred and if people know their money was going to fund hatred and persecution of a group instead of doing good work, they wouldn’t stand for that.

So it’s about transparency and it’s about people holding their churches and their clergy accountable and if you’re not a person of faith, it’s about spreading the word about what is going on there. Obama has been amazing in speaking out on the bill in Uganda and the secretary of state Clinton with gay rights for human rights, and I think that we’ve gotten requests from over three hundred churches across the America to bring the film and we have discussion guides where you can talk about it, and you can go to the website and find more information about how to get involved and allout.com where there is a petition and a number of actions you can take if you want to get involved.

S&A: Thank you for sharing that. And I’m sure you’ve seen Call Me Kuchu- this film and that film work together so well. They are great complements.

RRW: The activist story is the important story to tell and there’s a number of activist films, there’s The Kuchus of Uganda as well, and it’s important to show that we’re fighting back and I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know David Kato before he was brutally murdered, and he really inspired me to make and tell this story.

I wanted to make this film about faith and the different sides of faith, and the arguments going on, because if change is going to happen in Uganda and in Nigeria where there was a similar bill passed by the parliament of Nigeria, it’s going to happen in the faith community because they are driving this ideology and they are driving these types of bills and we have to – the gay community has to have a dialogue with the faith community and see leaders like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Reverend Kapya Kaoma stand up as men of faith against intolerance. It’s important that their stories get told, but that they get support, and that we see there’s an alternative to this sort of intolerance that comes from the fundamentalist Christian right in America.


Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Follow her on twitter @Nijla1

This article is related to: Roger Ross Williams, TV News, TV Features


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