God Loves Uganda (2013, Roger Ross Williams)

A good issue documentary should educate as well as incense, and as much as the content contained is pertinent and its message valuable, Roger Ross William’s God Loves Uganda contains little actual information that the general news coverage of the atrocities of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexual campaigns had not already revealed. What it does offer is an angle, the unsurprising but nevertheless exasperating harmful role of the Christian right.

Williams, who has the troubling accolade of being the only African American individual to ever win a directing award at the Oscars, which he won in 2010 for his short piece Music by Prudence, frames the hostility towards the LGBT community against American Christian fundamentalism, exploring how Christian influence in Uganda contributed to the proliferation of a 2009 hate-bill that criminalises homosexuals, with the harshest ‘offenders’ facing the death penalty.

God Loves Uganda takes one group in particular as its focus. That group is not, as might be expected considering their now infamous status thanks to a series of high-profile travesties and a remarkable Louie Theroux special, one Westboro Baptist Church, but a much bigger organisation that goes by the name of IHOP (the International House of Prayer, not Pancakes.) Unlike Westboro, IHOP cares about its international reputation, so whilst unafraid to open announce its prejudices, the sinister actions of this group run much more under the surface than the loudly proclaimed hatred that the Westboro Church is now famous for.

William’s doc claims, pretty compellingly, that this rapidly expanding organisation with missionary sects worldwide, is representative of a core of American influence groups that moved in to dictate the political and religious decision-making in Uganda after Idi Amin’s death in 2003. This intervention, fronted by the Bush administration, but continuing through Obama’s run, led to the reversal of preventative HIV initiatives instated by the Clinton administration. Abstinence over protection. Bible literalism over necessary pragmatism.

IHOP, acting as the face and voice of American Christianity, brings this message to Uganda, speaking directly to Ugandans, and Williams follows a small group of young missionaries as they inform the uninitiated about such dangerous things as condoms and homosexuals, making sure that Uganda is reshaped in the image of Christian extremism. For IHOP, Uganda represents a “ground zero” for change, a nation in turmoil that could be reborn as a utopia of Christian extremity, at whatever horrid cost to those who don’t match the image of Christian perfection.

Williams is not naive enough to suggest that the American right alone are responsible for the abominable situation in Uganda. He paints a picture of a young and susceptible nation, (over 50% of which are apparently under 15) with long-ingrained roots of prejudice, that when hearing Americans preaching fear, of hell and damnation, of how all these gays destroying their children, are more than willing to listen to a demonizing voice when it aligns with their pre-existing discriminative values, especially when it is one widely perceived to be truthful and righteous. If the lord says so.

William’s film is well put together, clear and precise in its information and message, and laudable in that it presents the well-covered, still unresolved, story, from a Ugandan perspective. He brings in a host of useful local contributors, including Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a pastor excommunicated for his refusal to condemn homosexuals. William’s film, thankfully, avoids condemning Christianity outright, just this specific distortion of it. Senyonjo indeed acts as a very agreeable face for modern Christianity, adhering to the values of the faith, but able to look past them and ask “what would be the most loving thing to do?”

Half a documentary about the Ugandan aids issue and the Anti-Homosexual Act, but also effective as a criticism of young white people who see no distinction between cause work and an adventure holiday. Whilst its leaders are certainly more aware of the damage their campaigning is doing, the proselytising young missionaries sent to Uganda by IHOP seem almost entirely unaware of the harm of their actions, and this is one of the most frightening aspects of Williams’ picture.

**★

Viewed at Sundance London on 23/04/2013. Originally posted on Front Row Reviews.

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