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Interview – When Faith Turns Into Fire: Roger Ross Williams on ‘God Loves Uganda’ (In Theaters)

Interview - When Faith Turns Into Fire: Roger Ross Williams on 'God Loves Uganda' (In Theaters)

being attacked,”
says one of the young American missionaries as they drive a
van through a group of Ugandans selling chicken on the side of the road. When they stop to patronize the Ugandans, they bring forceful messages of
Jesus, selling them like a commodity. This scene, ripe with the fundamentalist
fervor, is one of many in Roger Ross Williams’ compelling, disturbing documentary
God Loves Uganda, which opened Friday
in NYC and next weekend in Los Angeles. The
film examines the role of White American evangelical missionaries in
propagating some of the most potent, harmful rhetoric associated with
Christianity; that homosexuality is a crime punishable by prison and even

the young missionaries journey through Uganda using their whiteness, energy,
and conviction to win over locals, Ugandan pastors are trained by American evangelical veterans to win the cultural wars that have been lost in America, while
fattening their pockets with American funds to spread the gospel. Williams delivers a wonderfully balanced portrait of the evangelical movement,
punctuated by those who oppose it, including an incredibly humanist Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. One can sense a comfort in the interviewees, results of the rapport Williams built with them, even as he exposes the hypocrisy and inconsistencies in their

the first African American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film,
spoke with me over the phone about the process of making the project, why he decided
to emphasize American missionaries, and when he feared for his
own life during filming.

Loves Uganda
opens in Los Angeles this Friday. It is currently playing in New
York City. For more information, visit:

Shadow & Act: What informed your decision to emphasize
the missionaries and the work that they were doing, and at what point did you
come to that decision?  Also, if you
could talk about the process of making the film any particular challenges you
faced there?

Roger Ross Williams: When I first got to Uganda, the first person that I met was
(the activist) David Kato, and I could’ve gone in a number of directions. I
thought about following the activists, but after sitting down and talking to
David and a bunch of other activists there, he said,“ you know what we really
would love is a film about the work that the American fundamentalists are doing
in our country, and how they were destroying their lives and the lives of the
LGBTI community,” and for me, that really struck a nerve because I grew up in
the church, my family was in the church- my father, my sister are ministers so
it really spoke to me, and the church I grew up in was not accepting of me as a
gay person so it was really a natural direction for me to go with the story.

And as I began to come into the story to see how many
missionaries there were and how big of a movement it was in Uganda, I saw that
even the plane to Uganda was filled with American missionaries. It’s the number
one destination for missionaries in Africa and maybe the world, so it was a
natural thing.

And as far as challenges, there were of course many. Here I
am, a gay man in a place talking to people who believed I was a sinner, and
many believed that I should be imprisoned and in some cases killed for my
sexuality, so I had to be very careful about revealing my own sexuality in
Uganda at least. But there was a moment where someone outed me, someone sent
an email to one of the missionaries outing me and I got ambushed basically. I
got a call to dinner by one of the anti-gay pastors and there was a big group
there and they surrounded me and I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was
really scary, I was there with my cameraman and my crew and we were all
frightened. They told us we couldn’t film, but in the end, they decided that
they were going to pray for me to cure me instead of kill me. So there was a
lot of praying that went on over me but it didn’t really work. 

S&A: That’s so interesting. I was actually reading some
of your director’s statement and you’re talking about how a lot of the missionaries
were very nice and charming, but there’s this paradox of what they’re spreading
and how it leads to this hatred. So, I’m wondering if you can talk about if
they have any idea of the repercussions. It’s just an interesting thing that
they seem nice and sweet, but on the other end, there’s a really violent
undercurrent that’s happening.

RRW: For me, I wanted to focus on the ground game in Uganda- the
kids who are really well-meaning and innocent and who are going door to door,
to convince Ugandans to fight against what they perceive as sin, and I think
that they naively don’t know the repercussions of that. They don’t understand
the culture they’re going into. These kids are from the American Midwest and
they’re going into an African culture that they don’t know anything about. And
they’re preaching to people twice their age, and who have their own life
experiences, and telling them, follow our belief, follow what we believe and
they don’t even bother to ask them what do you feel or what are your beliefs,
so it struck me as very imperialistic, it struck me as sort of racist and
condescending but I don’t think they realize that when they bring that message
that homosexuality is sinful and homosexuals should be cured, and all of these
ideas from America, they don’t understand it’s taken very differently in a
culture in Uganda where people often take the law into their own hands as David
Kato said in the film.

And the thing about is that they know what they’re doing, especially
their leaders, because Lou Engle, the
leader of International House of Prayer- and they are just one of the many
churches working in Africa- they believe that they’ve lost the culture wars
here in America. They’ve all said that to me, “America and the west is lost,
we’re winning in the global south. We’re winning in Africa,” so they believe
that there’s a spiritual warfare, that there’s a battle between good and evil
and that Africa, because of what they represent, as White Americans, they
represent money and power and wealth. They get people’s attention and they’re
winning their battle.

S&A: I remember the scene where missionaries are
in a van being sold chicken on a stick from some of Ugandans, and I recall a
line one of them said: “We’re being attacked” and I was struck by that and their
whiteness- the power to influence and get attention. I was wondering if they
had any understanding of their whiteness- and you touched on it in your answer,
of the fact that it draws attention. I’ve been to South Africa as an African
American. I don’t know that I will have that same ability to get that type of
attention as a white person.

RRW: I think they’re well aware of their power as white Americans
and I think that even when you hear the girl and she says “I come all the way
across the ocean to send you this message” and you know that woman sitting in
that hut has never been on an airplane, and she’s never traveled outside of
Uganda or even her village and it’s intimidating, and in a way it’s like playing
a power game, it’s like “I’ve flown all across the ocean to bring you this
message” and people listen to them because of what America represents and what
they represent.

America has done a really good job, Hollywood has done a
very good job of selling the American dream and the American influence and
America is the most powerful country on earth so if you’re a poor African
person who is sick and you’re worried about where the next meal is going to
come from, worrying about how you’re going to make a living, you’re going to
say, look here comes this powerful American and maybe they can help me.  I should listen to them. And they take
advantage of that.

S&A: Yes, there were so many thought-provoking parts of
the film but there’s a scene where you’re in one of the church rooms and
converted people were chanting to themselves, almost violently, and walking
back and forth, and it was forming this really eerie chorus, and I just wonder
what your position as a filmmaker in that kind of environment is. What were
your thoughts in those situations? How did you remain neutral or a part of the

RRW: I’m always aware that I’m there to tell a story and my own
personal feelings, I have to put aside because I’m there as a vehicle to bring
the story to a bigger audience, so I put my personal feelings aside whether
it’s in that room or I’m sitting there and someone’s telling me gay people are
worse than dogs. I sacrifice my own feelings but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t
affect me. When I would go home at night, and even when I would come back from
a shoot, I would spend a couple of weeks being traumatized by it all but its
not to say that on a day to day basis, especially with the American
evangelicals that I spent a lot of time with, that we didn’t become friends and
get to know each other. We shared meals together and hung out together, and the
walls that divide us begin to come down on both sides and I think that’s one of
the goals of the film, and especially our outreach campaign is to begin a

We just finished a tour of Africa with the film, and it was
amazing because we screened the film often in many countries, from Nigeria to
South Africa with members of the faith community and the LGBTI community and
had discussions afterward and although discussions sometimes got really heated,
but as the two sides started to talk to each other, there was a sort of an
understanding and a couple of pastors took back their anti-gay statements and
said “we have never actually met a gay person.” It was like the gay boogeyman,
like gay people were this monster that is coming to destroy their community and
their family. When they saw and had a dialogue with gay people, they were like,
wait a minute, they are not the monsters they were made out to be.

S&A: That’s really powerful.

RRW: Yeah, it was amazing. The whole tour was really eye-opening
and watching the film with an African audience was just a different experience
for me because an African audience got things and subtleties in the film that
American audiences just didn’t pick-up on, and there was a deeper understanding
and the conversation afterward was so much richer because it wasn’t just this
simple story of American evangelicals coming to their continent and coming to
their country to preach the gospel, but it was all the subtle stuff. I remember
we had a screening in Kenya and one of the things I tried to do in the film is
bring a lot of humor into it, and it’s important to me that it’s not just dark,
and that you see this kind of absurdity. And the Kenyan women were laughing
hysterically through the whole film and the first person that stood up said, “you know, if this wasn’t so tragic, it would be a comedy.”

S&A: I definitely got that. There’s a shot you have of
one of the Ugandan pastor’s houses and it was such a nice, big, white house and
it made me laugh. Just to think about how wealthy this person is in contrast to
his followers.

RRW: Yeah, religion in Africa is a big, big business. The pastors
are the rock stars of the countries and pastors like Robert Kayanja that teach at the Prosperity Gospel, ends up being one of the richest people in the
country, and he was taught at Prosperity gospel and trained in America and
mentored by one of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, T.L.Osborne from
Oklahoma. I think they plucked him from obscurity at age 17 and said you are
going to be one of the most powerful pastors in this country and they created
him, and he is now.

This is such a huge amount of money that flows into Africa
and Sub-Saharan Africa so you find presidents and leaders, pastors, and politicians
wanting to gain favor and that’s why a lot of times, a pastor like Martin
who is one of the biggest anti-gay pastors in Uganda, he’s playing to
his American funders when he throws an anti-gay rally. He’s basically putting
on a show, showing porn in church-

S&A: That was horrible.

RRW: He’s like: “Look how I am such a warrior for you. And I know
you’re frustrated in America and marriage equality is being passed state by
state, and the supreme court is passing these rulings, and you’re still
frustrated in your country and you’re losing the culture war but look, in
Uganda, it’s a Nirvana for you. Send us money.” And he gets it.

S&A: I’ve been reading reviews and audience reactions
and people are really impacted by this film and disturbed by it. I know you’ve
spoken about the dialogues between the missionaries, pastors, and the people
they’re trying to convert, but what other actions would you suggest viewers
take, when they finish watching the film and are filled with emotion and the
need to do something?

RRW: We have a campaign with which is “keep hate out
of the collection plate” and it’s about more transparency from where the money
is flowing because there’s a lot of unknowing people thinking they are giving
to good work and missionaries, and missionaries are doing a lot of great work
in Africa, but some of that money goes to fund Martin Ssempa and others who are
running hatred and if people know their money was going to fund hatred and persecution
of a group instead of doing good work, they wouldn’t stand for that.

So it’s about transparency and it’s about people holding
their churches and their clergy accountable and if you’re not a person of
faith, it’s about spreading the word about what is going on there. Obama has
been amazing in speaking out on the bill in Uganda and the secretary of state
Clinton with gay rights for human rights, and I think that we’ve gotten
requests from over three hundred churches across the America to bring the film
and we have discussion guides where you can talk about it, and you can go to
the website and find more information about how to get involved and
where there is a petition and a number of actions you can take if you want to
get involved.

S&A: Thank you for sharing that. And I’m sure you’ve seen
Call Me Kuchu– this film and that
film work together so well. They are great complements.

RRW: The activist story is the important story to tell and
there’s a number of activist films, there’s The
Kuchus of Uganda
as well, and it’s important to show that we’re fighting
back and I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know David Kato before
he was brutally murdered, and he really inspired me to make and tell this story.

I wanted to make this film about faith and the different
sides of faith, and the arguments going on, because if change is going to
happen in Uganda and in Nigeria where there was a similar bill passed by the
parliament of Nigeria, it’s going to happen in the faith community because they
are driving this ideology and they are driving these types of bills and we have
to – the gay community has to have a dialogue with the faith community and see
leaders like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Reverend Kapya Kaoma stand up as men of faith against
intolerance. It’s important that their stories get told, but that they get
support, and that we see there’s an alternative to this sort of intolerance that comes
from the fundamentalist Christian right in America.

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Follow her on twitter @Nijla1

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