God Loves Uganda
Runs Fri., Nov. 15–Thurs., Nov. 21 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 83 minutes.
If he’d wanted to go the first-person Michael Moore route, Roger Ross Williams could have gotten some high drama into this documentary. Williams told The Hollywood Reporter that after shooting in Uganda for a few weeks, he was taken aside by a group of bishops who had discovered his sexual orientation. Homosexuality is illegal in that nation, and these clerics had been preaching their vehemently antigay beliefs to him, so the moment was tense. Williams was lucky; the priests began praying over him, the better to cure him.
That moment is not included or described in God Loves Uganda, nor is Williams a presence in the movie (there is no narration). Instead, what he presents is a lucid and appalling portrait of the modern missionary movement and the effect it has had on a single African nation. Although Uganda’s widely criticized (and still pending) legislation threatening the death penalty for homosexual behavior is described in the movie, the broader subject here is the way American evangelicals are pouring money and legwork into the country. Williams tags along with missionaries from a Kansas City megachurch known as The International House of Prayer (yes, they call themselves IHOP) who pour their spiritual syrup over the burgeoning phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism in Uganda. That movement’s leaders, American and Ugandan alike, share a particular enthusiasm for denouncing homosexuality, which the movie connects to the rise in antigay sentiment in the country. The most humane exception is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, whose sympathy with the LGBT community has made him controversial in Uganda. We also meet Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest who particularly notes how much harder it’s been to fight the AIDS epidemic since the instigation of “abstinence-only” policies encouraged by religious groups.
Williams, who won an Oscar for the 2010 short film Music by Prudence, generally plays fair with his material. No editorial comment is needed when you have a shot of true believers wandering through a large room, apparently speaking in tongues; it might have come from a sci-fi picture. Showing what’s going on is enough. In a dismal village, a fresh-faced American woman discusses eternity with an older Ugandan lady. “If you die today and have not repented,” she reports, “you will not be with us in paradise. Does that scare you?” There are plenty of frights to go around in God Loves Uganda.