On Friday, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence) debuted his latest documentary, God Loves Uganda, at the Sundance Film Festival. Practically ripped from the headlines, the film examines the connection between fundamentalist Christian missionaries and Uganda’s culture of homophobia, including the nation’s nefarious “Kill the Gays” bill.
Queerty chatted with Williams about the film and the relationship between evangelicals in America and Uganda. “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,” Willams says. “I, a black man, made that journey and found America.”
What inspired you to make God Loves Uganda? Was there a personal connection for you?
I have a strong religious background, and grew up singing in the choir of my family church. I have always been interested in the power of religion as a force for both good and evil. My last film [Music by Prudence] took place in Zimbabwe and, while I was shooting there, I was struck by how popular conservative Christianity is in sub-Saharan Africa. After I read about Uganda’s now famous “Kill the Gays” bill, I wanted to explore the religious forces behind it. I’m not interested in films that preach to the converted— I always wanted to make a film that starts a dialogue within the religious community.
What kind of impact is American fundamental Christianity having on politics in Uganda?
In Uganda, there is very little distance between Church and State: The President and First Lady are both evangelical Christians, and most of the members of Parliament are as well. The First Minister of Ethics, Marian Metembe, told me “I am Born Again, if I am serving the church I am serving the state—they cannot be mutually exclusive.”
Imagine if the far-right wing of the Republican Party had that kind of free reign. That is what life is like in Uganda. The nation is under the grip of a fundamentalist Christian movement that controls pretty much all facets of society including government and politics.
Is there a difference in the approach and agenda of American Christians coming to East Africa, and the native ministers and churches?
Uganda has become the Promised Land for Christian fundamentalism and a fertile ground for mining what has become one of Africa’s greatest natural resources—human souls. It’s a major destination for U.S. missionaries.
The American Christians also run countless schools and hospitals there, and have built up an incredible infrastructure since the fall of Idi Amin. Most African churches have sister churches in the U.S. and get major support for orphans and social programs from America. Christian television from the U.S. is very popular, and in many churches they often sing American Christian music. American and Ugandan ministers are deeply intertwined.
What differs is the approach to how they promote Old Testament biblical law: In America, the fundamentalist have lost the culture wars—in Uganda they are winning. Uganda ministers have taken the American message and hiked it up to a fever pitch. Pastors there throw anti-gay rallies, single mothers are marginalized, and abortion is illegal, even in cases of rape. And it’s all in the name of God. Ugandan pastors are like American fundamentalist pastors on steroids.