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.
EW: Why do you think they’re so focused on homosexuality?
RRW: I think for a lot of people who are really outspoken about homosexuality and fighting homosexuality, it’s about fighting your own internal demons. Jo Anna Watson, when she admitted to me in the film that she was attracted to women, I wasn’t surprised. It’s like Lou admitting his obsession with pornography. Lou was best friends with Ted Haggard [an evangelical pastor who allegedly paid a masseur for sex]. You want to rally your followers to fight against something, and this works very well in Uganda. It’s easy to demonize a group of people as scapegoats and the symbol of evil. They’re obsessed with sexual sins. Sex sells, sex is sexy, people obsess over sex.
EW: What did you think about the young missionaries? What was their motivation
RRW: Everyone I got to know from the conservative fundamentalist community was really nice. I had demonized them, and they had demonized me. Those walls came down and we ended up hanging out and having meals together. The kids are sweet and well meaning and feel like they’re doing the right thing. It’s not them, it’s their leaders who have this master plan. The founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, was on the ground with a bunch of faith leaders in 1979 to take that country as a Christian nation when Idi Amin fell. This is an experiment they’re doing in Uganda. They’ve rebuilt that country and they’ve built schools and leadership academies. It’s the youngest population on the planet and it was devastated. Amin was a Muslim; he outlawed evangelical Christianity; it had the highest AIDS rate on the continent—it was a perfect storm. There was a power vacuum, and they could come in and rebuild that country, and rebuild it as a Christian nation.
EW: In the movie you show the young missionaries visiting people in their homes with translators. Do the people ever ask them to leave?
RRW: This is why they love Uganda. It’s a Christian nation—it’s like 86 percent Christian, and people love and thank America for the support and especially the faith community in America because they helped rebuild that country and have done a lot of great work. America wasn’t the colonial power—it was Britain, and America represents power and wealth and fame. So Ugandans open their doors to Americans. That’s why when you see a 19-year-old girl talking to a woman three times her age, she’s listening. She’s like if I listen to you maybe I can get out of this situation. It’s like when that girl says to that woman, “I’ve come all this way across the ocean,” it’s like intimidation. It’s like, “I’ve come out of the sky.” That woman has probably never left that village. She’s telling her she’s come to bring this message and if she listens to the message, she not only will have eternal life, but her life will be better on earth.
EW: What has been the response to the film in Africa?
RRW: It’s been unbelievable. We were in Malawi, and we screened in Malawi for 80 faith leaders and 40 people from the LGBT community and the faith leaders were really angry and saying all the usual stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah, and this guy stood up and addressed the faith leaders and said, “I’m Malawian, and I was born this way. You’ve made my life miserable, if I could change, don’t you think I would?” They just listened. Then this woman came up and said, “I’m married with two children, and I love my children, but I don’t love my husband, and I live a lie because you are forcing me to live a lie. I’m a lesbian.” Then she called her girlfriend up and they kissed. Then people applauded and lined up to come out. It was the first time anyone came out in public in Malawi. This whole thing was broadcast on public radio in Malawi, and we were on the front of every newspaper in the country.
Then last week we opened in [Washington] D.C., and the daughter of the former vice president of Uganda [Gilbert Bukenya], who’s running for president of Uganda, asked for a meeting with me. At 8 a.m. I met him in his hotel room. He was pro bill, and he was pro criminalization. I sat there with him and I couldn’t believe I was in this situation. He said, “Your film has really opened my eyes to how we’ve been manipulated by evangelicals. I’ve changed my views, and my daughter helped me change my views.” She was crying and she came to me after the screening and said, “I had no idea. I thought this was a choice.” He said, “I’d like to come out against the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda and for human rights. I’d love it if you could help me do that.” I said, “Aren’t you worried about your political career?” and he said, “Don’t worry about me. Africa must change and it must come from Africans.” So we’re going to do a whole campaign. You can’t ask for that—the power of film to change a law in a country and save lives? You can’t ask for more than that.
God Loves Uganda/Derek Wiesehahn
Missionaries Rachelle and Jesse Digges at the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, Mo.