Film Review: God Loves UgandaEvangelicals take American cultural wars to Uganda as they convert souls and demonize gays in this unsettling and well-crafted film.
The list of travesties committed by religion in the name of God is lengthy. Now you can add Uganda to the list. In Roger Ross Williams’ eye-opening documentary God Loves Uganda, the Kansas City-based evangelical group International House of Prayer (IHOP) is seen not only spreading the Gospel to desperate people in Uganda, but also demonizing homosexuality and banning the use of condoms among a population heavily hit by HIV. This is clearly a film with an agenda and will be well-received by like-minded viewers.
Aside from the premise itself, the most striking thing about the film is that IHOP has granted Williams full access. Apparently, the group thinks there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the depiction is predictably far from flattering. Interviews with the bombastic leaders of the church establish the importance attached to the mission in Uganda, which is regarded as “the pearl of Africa” since it is so ripe for indoctrination, with more than half the population under 15. Well-meaning though they may be, these evangelicals believe God has given them the mandate to rule the world.
Williams follows a team of freshly scrubbed, lily-white young adults with no life experience as they prepare to go off to the Dark Continent to tell people what’s good for them. On the surface, building schools and hospitals might seem like a positive thing, but the equation is infinitely more complicated. The money for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention pouring into the country from the U.S. is tied to a policy of abstinence, which has become the official policy of the Uganda government, with a proposed bill that would make homosexuality illegal and punishable by death.
While religious leaders within and outside Uganda have seemingly benefited from American largesse, a few lone voices have emerged to speak out, and they give the film its moral backbone. The Rev. Kapya Kaoma was formerly an Anglican priest in Uganda but was forced to flee the country and now, based in Boston, conducts research on the Christian right’s colonization of African values and the violent intolerance of LGBT people in Uganda.
Christopher Senyonjo was for many years a respected religious leader in Uganda and rose to become a bishop. However, in the early ’90s his commission was revoked because of his support and compassion for gays. He continues his own “mission” in Uganda and was awarded the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2012 for his work and unwavering belief that “we are all God's children.”
As the IHOP missionaries march into the remote, poorest areas of Uganda with Bibles in hand, promising eternal salvation, they do not understand that in this culture where people often take the law into their own hands, by smearing gays they could be putting them in a life-threatening situation. And, in fact, the film reports on the murder of a beloved gay activist. It’s not surprising when we see footage of a local clergyman inflaming his congregation by showing them an S&M film and representing that as standard practice for homosexuals.
Moving back and forth between scenes in Kansas City and Uganda, editors Richard Hankin and Benjamin Gray weave the divergent material together into a compelling portrait of a volatile situation that is, at heart, fueled and financed by American cultural wars. God Loves Uganda is not a subtle film and might have benefited from a bit more nuance in discussing the issues. Surely not all Christian efforts in Uganda are reprehensible. But Williams is to be commended not only for his filmmaking skill, but also for pulling back the curtain on a most disturbing situation.