Mar 7, 2014
Q & A: ‘God Loves Uganda’
Posted on Nov 11, 2013
By Emily Wilson
After winning an Academy Award for his documentary short “Music by Prudence,” filmmaker Roger Ross Williams decided to use the clout the victory gave him to explore the role of the American evangelical movement in Uganda’s turn toward biblical law and the proposed death penalty for homosexuality. To make “God Loves Uganda,” Williams, a gay man, talked with the leaders and the young missionaries at the always-open International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, Mo., as well as religious leaders and activists in Uganda.
In San Francisco, Williams talked about his upbringing in the Baptist church, the factors that made Uganda so appealing to fundamentalists, how sex sells and the ways his movie is changing things in Africa.
Emily Wilson: You were in Africa making “Music by Prudence” when you got the idea for this story, right? What made you want to make this movie?
Roger Ross Williams: I was making “Music by Prudence” in Zimbabwe, and I noticed that there was a church on almost every corner. There was a type of fundamentalist Christianity in Zimbabwe, and as I began exploring, in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. I became interested in faith and religion in Africa, and part of that is because I grew up in the Baptist church and my family, they’re all ministers. My uncle has a pretty large mega-church in Pennsylvania. I grew up singing in the gospel choir, and I felt part of it because the African church is great for community. But I didn’t feel part of it because I never felt accepted as a gay man because it’s not an affirming church.
When I heard about what was going on in Uganda, it was fascinating to me because it was such an extreme version of what I had experienced as a child—that sense of one type of biblical truth. I decided I had to go and check it out.
I went over there, and the first person I met was the gay activist David Kato. It was a research trip, so I thought I would film some research interviews, and I would never use them in the film. I got there late at night. I was in Rwanda and I took a bus there and the first thing in the morning waiting for me in my hotel was David Kato and three other activists, and they started telling me everything that was going on. A lot of film crews were making films about the activist community there, but David Kato said, “The story no one has told is the story of the damage the American fundamentalists are doing in my country.” I didn’t need any further push than that. That’s the interview I use in the film, that’s the research interview that was never meant to be on camera. He was brutally murdered soon after I got back to the U.S. I told them, “OK, I’m going to go deep into the other side.” To me it was challenging—I always want to challenge myself as a filmmaker— to go into the world of people who hated me so much they wanted to see me dead and to explore that.
EW: What did you tell people about yourself? Didn’t they ask about your personal life?
RRW: No, they didn’t. I was following hugely powerful, popular pastors in Uganda who were very wealthy. One of the pastors had the Ugandan military guarding him, and he gave me police escorts through the streets of Kampala. I was in this crazy world, and they believed I was sent to them by God to glorify their ministries, so I sort of went with that. They’re so self-focused. I think the thing that got me the access is that I won an Academy Award. They were like, “I have an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who’s following me.” They’re all about flashing their wealth and prosperity. I was in this world but always terrified I would be found out. These guys were talking about forming their own militias to go door to door to hunt down gay people because the government wasn’t moving fast enough. They believe in spiritual warfare. Pastor Scott Lively went there and addressed the parliament for five hours with this narrative that Western homosexuals were coming in to recruit their children and their goal was to wipe out society.
EW: With the missionary Jo Anna Watson or the pastor Lou Engle, did you ever ask them about why they thought it was OK to kill homosexuals when there’s a commandment against killing?
RRW: The Americans knew I was gay. When I approached IHOP they said, “You’re part of the gay agenda.” But I convinced them to be in the film because I said, “There’s not going to be a reporter, this is not a news piece, you’re going to speak for yourself.” I think Jono [Hall], the media director of IHOP and aspiring filmmaker, he was very impressed that I had won the Academy Award. I spoke to their media group and showed “Music by Prudence” and they were like [mimes clapping.] So for me I was like, “What do I do with this award?” I’m going to use it to do some good in the world. How do you spend that capital? So it worked. It was harder to get them to let me follow them to Uganda. It took me a year and a half to get Lou Engle to do an interview. He’s very outspoken on this issue. At his 33,000 person rally for Prop. 8 in California, he said that if Prop. 8 is defeated it will unleash an insanity on the earth worse than the threat of Islam. He throws these huge prayer rallies, and his three main things he’s fighting in order to eradicate evil and usher in the second coming are abortion, homosexuality and Islam. He’s also a leader in the Republican Party. You can see him on YouTube praying with Michele Bachmann for the end of Obamacare. He was Newt Gingrich’s evangelical adviser. He threw Rick Perry’s huge rally in Texas, the Response. No one organizes a big prayer rally better than Lou Engle.
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