God Loves Uganda
While Roger Ross Williams was in Zimbabwe filming the 2010 documentary short Music by Prudence, which would make him the first African American to win an Academy Award for directing and producing a film, he was already wondering about his follow-up project.
“I noticed how intensely religious and conservative Africa is,” he recalls. “There’s an evangelical religious hold on sub-Saharan Africa, and that was in the back of my mind when I was thinking of what to do next.”
Then Williams read about Uganda’s contentious antigay bill, which originally proposed a death penalty to gay people. The 39-year-old documentarian decided to travel to the violence-plagued, poverty-stricken nation with a film crew to explore the connection between American evangelicals and the bill.
The result of that exploration is God Loves Uganda, a provocative, often shocking exposé of the evangelical missionary movement in the ravaged country.
How transparent were you with the subjects you interviewed—particularly the Evangelical Christians—regarding your intention with this film?
The film is really about religion and a certain type of evangelical thinking, which is a very strict interpretation of the Biblical Old Testament law. I told them I wanted to explore this. I also told them I wanted to talk about the antigay bill because it came out of religious argument. There’s a group of religious leaders who are the driving force behind the bill. It was rough going at first. But as we got to know each other, we actually grew to like each other and enjoy each other’s company, even though philosophically their idea is that I don’t have a right to exist as a gay man.
Did you tell them you’re gay?
We didn’t talk about me being gay, but there was one hairy moment when the Ugandans found out. I was outed, so to speak, in Uganda when I was invited to dinner at the home of an antigay pastor. I was terrified.
Someone who wanted to expose me sent them an email that said I’m gay. They’d pulled an interview I’d done from the Internet. The Ugandans said, “We love you and we want to pray for you and cure you.”
How do you respond to something like that?
You don’t. I was in the home of one of the biggest anti-gay pastors in Uganda, and I was surrounded by people who had told me in interviews that they’d never even met a gay person. I just kept my cool and stayed calm and rational. I wasn’t about to get into an argument with them because I would have put myself and my crew in danger. We had developed a relationship, and they just knew me as Roger. But suddenly this monster of homosexuality that they had built up had a face. Some of them refused to believe it.
How did this evening play out?
We finished dinner and I left. We actually continued to film with some of them. They intensified their prayers. I think a lot of the evangelical Americans and Ugandans believe if they pray hard enough they can pray the gay away.
Did you have to sit there while they tried to pray your gay away?
Yes. [Laughs.] That happened many times. I grew up in the church so it wasn’t so unusual. Also it wasn’t exactly like they were “praying the gay away”—they were praying that God would direct the film, basically.
Why didn’t you include this in the documentary?
The film is about something much bigger than me and my personal experiences. It’s about the bigger evangelical movement. It’s OK to believe that homosexuality is not God’s way, but it’s not OK to condone or support or even look the other way when there’s violence against LGBTQ+ people. Many of the evangelicals who are missionaries in Uganda, even though they’re not directly participating in violence, will look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. If you’re a Christian, you don’t condone violence against anyone, but they’re not standing up. American evangelicals have a huge amount of influence in Uganda.
Why do you think Ugandans are so susceptible to the theology of Evangelicals, who are predominantly white?
They’re susceptible to that message for a number of reasons. Idi Amin [president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979] had outlawed evangelical Christianity, so after the country was devastated by civil war and HIV/AIDS, it was a disaster. The evangelicals moved in and helped rebuild the country and built schools so America represents wealth, health and the future and success so they’re welcome there. Also, the median age in Uganda is 15, so an entire country of kids has been raised on the evangelical message. They created a sort of utopia.
How did you convince these people to speak so openly about their radical views?
It happened over time. When you go into a project like this, you’re the mainstream media, and there’s a lack of trust. Over time, you get to know each other and have meals together, and those walls start to fall down and people begin to speak openly. It takes time—a year or two years—to develop those relationships.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with this film?
I hope it forces certain groups of evangelicals to speak out against this violence and this type of rhetoric and get a better understanding of what it means to go into a different culture and take responsibility for what they’re depositing in Africa and what the repercussions are. I want American evangelicals to understand the language they use may not translate the way they think it will to a different culture.
I hope we can screen the film in churches across America and people will say ‘That’s not what we want.’ I want Christian audiences to hold their church and pastor accountable, and when they put money in the collection plate that’s going to help an orphan in Africa, it’s really going to help an orphan in Africa, not fuel hatred.