Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams on God Loves Uganda

street preacher in Uganda

Roger Ross Williams won an Academy Award for his short documentary Music by Prudence, which told the moving story of 21-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena, who was born severely disabled and has struggled to overcome poverty and discrimination. For his first feature-length documentary God Loves Uganda, which itself was on the short list for an Academy Award this year, and premieres on PBS May 19th at 10pm (check local listings), Williams returned to Africa to tell another powerful, if far more chilling, story.

The film is “a searing look at the role of American evangelical missionaries in the persecution of gay Africans,” wrote Jeanette Catsoulis in The New York Times. Adds Andrew Lapin in The Dissolve, “one effective sequence after another carries the alarming sensation of ideological chaos without resorting to technical trickery.” We spoke to the filmmaker about the challenges of making God Loves Uganda and getting it to a wide audience.

IL: You grew up in the black church yourself, always had religion around you growing up, and know the powerful affect it can have on people’s lives. How do you think that experience has affected you as a documentarian?

Roger Ross Williams: My father was a religious leader in the community and my sister is a pastor. But for all that the church gave me, for all that it represented belonging, love and community, it also shut its doors to me as a gay person. That experience left me with the lifelong desire to explore the power of religion to transform lives or destroy them, thus motivating me to direct films like God Loves Uganda.

The film covers what is obviously contentious and provocative terrain — was your mindset going into it to get multiple perspectives, and was it difficult to do so, to get all sides to talk to you? (i.e., Christian fundamentalists, African religious leaders with differing perspectives, younger evangelicals, other Africans, etc.) 

Absolutely. I knew the subject matter was a difficult and emotional one on many levels, as well as a very politically charged one.  It was not difficult to get different people to talk to me once I was able to establish a space of mutual respect and trust.  In addition, various parties were eager to share their own views about perceptions of homosexuality in Uganda and Africa in general.

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams

Can you talk a little about your experiences going to Africa for the first time? How does the church there differ from the US church experience?

When I visited Africa to make my film Music by Prudence I was struck by how intensely religious and socially conservative Africans were. There was literally a church on every corner. People were praying in the fields. It was like the American evangelical Christianity I had known – but magnified by Africa’s intensity.

The more I learned about religion in Africa, the more intrigued I became. It was as if the continent was gripped with religious fervor. And the center of it was Uganda. I began to research; I took my first trip to Uganda. I discovered it is the number one destination for American missionaries. The American evangelical movement has been sending missionaries and money, proselytizing its people, and training its pastors for a generation; building schools, manning hospitals, even running programs for training political leaders. Its President and First Lady are evangelical Christians, as are most members of its Parliament and 85% of the population.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making God Loves Uganda?

While shooting in Uganda in 2011, the conservative evangelical pastors I was filming — the most ardent supporters of the country’s now famous Anti-Homosexuality Bill — discovered that I myself am gay. One began circulating emails suggesting that I be killed. I left the country immediately, and hoped I’d never have to go back.

Cut to a year later. I’m with my editors at the Sundance Documentary Edit lab and it becomes abundantly clear that we need more footage from Uganda. We needed to spend more time there to do justice to this very complicated, and very important, story.  And the only way to get it right meant I had to go back. Either I sacrificed, or the story would have to.

And so I went.  I spent three terrifying, thrilling weeks in Uganda, knowing full well that this would be the last time I was in a country I’ve been filming for the past three years.  And I’m happy to say that without the footage we captured on that last trip, God Loves Uganda wouldn’t be the film it is now.

Do you see any signs that attitudes about homosexuality may change in Uganda and other similarly minded African nations in the near future?

In the well-known trope about Africa, a white man journeys into the heart of darkness and finds the mystery of Africa and its unknowable otherness. I, a black man, made that journey and found – America. As unfortunate as it is that the role American evangelists played left a negative imprint on LGBT rights in Uganda, I choose to remain optimistic that Uganda will make the same political changes regarding homosexuality that we now see happening here in America.

And in your travels, did you find places in Africa that were more open and welcoming to LGBT people and lifestyles?

I found a very similar level of unacceptance in other parts of Africa, especially in Nigeria where we also screened God Loves Uganda.  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 federal government 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.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo visiting a rural school in Uganda

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo visiting a rural school in Uganda

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think? 

Most of the people in the film have seen the movie and some of the evangelicals have stated that it has made them more sympathetic and rethink how they spread God’s word in Africa.

Which films and/or filmmakers influenced you the most in making this film?

I was less inspired by other filmmakers in making this film, but instead moved by my first meeting with the late David Kato, an LGBT activist who was killed in 2011.  When I first got to Uganda, he was the first person that I met, and after sitting down and talking to David 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 LGBT community,” and for me, because I grew up in the church,  it really spoke to me.

 What are you working on next?

I am working on a new film called Life Animated, The Documentary, based on the real-life story of Owen Suskind, the autistic son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia. The film is also based on Ron Suskind’s upcoming book, Life Animated: a story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism.

Essentially, the family is forced to become animated characters, communicating with Owen in Disney dialogue and song; until they all emerge, together, revealing how, in darkness, we all literally need stories to survive. The film is produced by Julie Goldman, and is a cinematic exploration into the magical world that Ron Suskind’s son has created. It is a story of a family finding hope and connection in very unexpected places.

What are your three favorite films?

Imitation of Life; The Celebration; and Darwin’s Nightmare.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? 

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and go places you fear the most (both internally and externally).

Lastly, are there any updates on any of the people featured in God Loves Uganda that you want to pass along to us?

Yes. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo was one of the only faith leaders to stand up against homophobia in Uganda.  The government is now threatening to arrest this eighty-one year old man, with a wife and many children.  He was close friends with David Kato before Kato was murdered and is listed in the top ten of the world’s most influential religious people by the Huffington Post.  Finally, there is an important book people should know about called American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism, a new, popular-format guidebook written by Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma who was featured in the film, designed to educate U.S. audiences and motivate all people of conscience to take action that interrupts the persecution of women and sexual minorities overseas. [American Culture Warriors in Africa releases the same day as the national PBS broadcast of God Loves Uganda.]

See also: Roger Ross Williams on The Daily Show.

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Independent Lens Season, Interview and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  • Faithful

    Very effective but untrue propaganda, yes we as Christians
    do believe marriage is between a man and women and that sex before marriage is
    not God design. But as a person who has supported missionaries to Uganda you
    have painted a very distorted picture to advance your agenda.

    Look at the schools orphanages and families Christians have
    helped. Our goal is to preach God’s word and love which we are doing. An honest
    look would focus on this vs. other religions. Clearly your agenda was to cherry
    pick a few persons and speeches and add visuals to move your viewer’s emotions
    regarding the LBGT issue and turn people against Christianity

    • mercdem2

      Want to help people help people but KEEP YOUR RELIGION TO YOURSELF! You speak of your “god” but like children, you don’t consider the ramifications of spreading fables to people grasping at anything to change their condition. Your foolishness breeds more violence, more ignorance in the world. Look at the idiocy you spread in your own country! No evolution in schools? No science? In the 21st century? Wow. You think YOUR hodgepodge amalgam of older religions is any better than any other? If you were truly trying to be christlike there would be no strings attached to your good deeds. But no, the african people have to build churches, convert to gain the next level of blessings. Sounds like a pyramid scheme to me. Maybe one day you’re wiring will evolve so your fear of death and your internal sense of morality won’t need the crutch of ancient fairytales. Bottom line, you and your primitive type are pathetic.

      • Faithful

        Unfortunately our God calls us to preach his gospel to the world. Thus we cannot “Keep it to ourselves” and be devoted to him.

        In terms of your other statements I would encourage you to look at the violence and death caused when attempts are made to remove God from the public square. Such as the former Soviet Union under Stalin as one example.

        Weather you believe or not the moral laws encompassed in the Christian religion have provided stability and basis for compassion. If I evolve pass my belief in “ancient fairytales” where does the basis for moral law come from? Evolution ? The survival of the fittest? If that is the case what is the basis for any compassion, let the weak be damned and the strong dominate. I will pass on that one.

        • Empress de Snark

          Did you see this movie, Faithnut? Did you happen to listen to the two Anglican priests talk about how evangelizing means showing the love of God to the flock, and not looking around for things to punish them harshly for? Did you pay any attention to the stats on the rise of HIV thanks to the religion-driven abstinence policies in Uganda? Do you honestly think that hanging or life imprisonment are reasonable, acceptable punishments for people whose private sexual habits are not hurting you one bit? Really?

          • Faithful

            Empress de Snark

            If you want a dialog I suggest you not start by insulting someone (faithnut). I did see the movie and also personally know a number of Uganda citizens and US citizens who have traveled to Uganda. This movie is a distortion of the facts with an agenda based on my personal experience.

            The overwhelming majority of Christians in Uganda are showing Gods love and helping those in need. We are focused on sharing the good news of Christ and eternal salvation. If we believe God’s word then we are called to share it with others including his commands.

            Christ calls us to follow his commands and one of those commands is sexual purity prior to marriage. We believe this is best for all involved. The fact that people choose to ignore this is not a reason to hate them but to continue to love and share the Gospel with them.

            I do not think (nor to the majority of Christians) that hanging or life imprisonment are reasonable, acceptable punishments for people whose private sexual habits I disagree with.

            It does amaze me that those who say Christianity is a fairytale most strongly seem the most afraid of it. If it is truly a fairytale you have little to fear.

          • Lo Bar

            I would very much like to see these ‘memos’ or ‘callings’ that your god insists on sending to the ‘lucky’…

          • Lo Bar

            This is not on their list of ‘things’ to read or believe!! Apparently god did not send them that memo!!

        • Lo Bar

          here again,,compassion?? that’s a laugh!! u know it and so do lots of ‘sane’ people. no tolerance for others w/different views or ways of life. I can see u carrying the picture of the man burnt to death only for not having the same sexuality as u,,,tolerance? compassion?? HAH.

      • Lo Bar

        YES!!! I DO CONCUR!!!

  • James

    Sadly, the world looks us, at America, with our media controled agenda and it scares the hell out of them. They are drawing the battle lines aginst our depravity and willling to accept any help the can get, as extream as that might be. Sadly! Nobody wants to be like us, period! They are very afraid and have every right to be so.

  • PBS viewer

    This “documentary” is based on the perspective and opinions of one man’s hurtful experience at his own church. Because his own church rejected him, he makes generalizations and assumes that all churches discriminates the gay population. As a result, this film focuses on how he thinks Christianity is the cause of hate crimes and the rise of HIV. On the last portion of the film, it mentions on how Christians are spreading ant-gay ideas to the whole world. It saddens me on how he blames gay discrimination to Christians. Ironically , this film that is supposedly “unbiased” is now discriminating and spreading hurtful comments towards Christians. Are all Christians killing gay people? Are only Christians homophobic? Are they the reason why governments want to kill and arrest gay people ? I encourage all viewers to ask questions and do their own research on this topic. I also encourage everyone who watched this film ask their own questions about Christianity and seek answers from other resources to confirm their beliefs. I expected this to be an accurate and unbiased film, but am greatly disappointed that it skews reality and creates distorted ideas about gay discrimination. I would like Roger Williams to know that Christians also are discriminated in several countries and also are killed because of their beliefs. Should Christians blame other religions for their persecution? Should they make “documentaries” on how one group of people kill Christians because they have different beliefs? I’m greatly disappointed that this film by Roger is creating anger towards Christians. I pray that everyone in this world knows the truth and loves one another despite religion, sexuality, race, gender, social status and beliefs. It grieves me to know that people have such hate ad unforgiveness and anger towards eAchother. Let us continue to seek truth for the rest of our lives.

  • Stéphanie Robert

    The film speaks for itself… Wow! As a Native descendant, I know how some people, blinded by what they think is “God” and their own definition of “good” are able to destroy “foreign” cultures… I really appreciate this great documentary! Thank you!

  • Lo Bar

    This documentary REAFFIRMS my views on the ‘holier than thou’s’. This man, s.lively, really should be ‘thrown to the lions’. The good thing is,,well, can’t find a good thing about this foul extremist or his ignorant congregation. Have these ‘holier than thou’s’ done anything and I mean anything other than spread their ‘vomit’, for the poor that live or barely live in their mud huts and drink dirty water? Do they hold out the food and say, ” we will feed u IF u take their lords word to heart’?? These people r the absolute worst. Their ignorance to just too much to take. Glad to of seen this film but it turned my stomach.