One of the standout documentaries at Sundance this year is the new film God Loves Uganda, which examines the relationship between American evangelical missionaries and the increasingly anti-gay Ugandan religious and political establishments. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams faced death threats to expose how virulent, and potentially deadly, anti-LGBT bias is being promoted by US-based religious institutions in other countries. In the case of Uganda, this has led to the undermining of HIV prevention programs and advocating for the death penalty for LGBT people.
Below you can read GLAAD’s interview with Williams about his film, which is currently screening at Sundance, and view the film’s trailer.
In your “Meet the Artist” segment for Sundance (posted at the bottom of the page), you mention that you were first inspired to look at Uganda as a possible documentary topic after reading a New York Times article about the situation there. What was it about the story that caught your attention and eventually led you to make a film about it?
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 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 was filming in Uganda like, and did you receive any pushback from the government or officials there during the filmmaking process?
The government wasn’t a problem during production and in fact John Nagenda the senior media advisor to President Museveni was very helpful. My problems were with the religious leaders. 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 is becoming abundantly clear that we needed 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 probably wouldn't be premiering at Sundance.
Were any Ugandan LGBT activists part of your shoot there?
The first person I met was slain activist David Kato. He introduced me to many activists and acted as a sort of fixer for me in the beginning. I interviewed a few activists and also filmed some LGBT Ugandans who were victims of violence and torture for being gay. I thought about following the activists - brave and admirable men and women - who were fighting against the homophobic policies. But I was more curious about the people who, in effect, wanted to kill them and me. (According to the provisions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, gays could be put to death or imprisoned.) I want to make films that provoke thought, not preach to the converted.
In your discussions with US-based evangelicals about the situation in Uganda, was there a commonly shared opinion you encountered or were they varied?
Every evangelical I encountered believed that you could pray the gay away. They call us “sexually broken” and they spent a considerable amount of time trying to pray my gay away. It didn’t work. Uganda has adopted this very American idea that you can “cure” a gay person and there was even talk at one point that this barbaric practice, that has long since been discredited in the US, should be incorporated into the Ugandan anti-gay bill.
Why do you think it’s important that more people know about the situation God Loves Uganda examines, and what would like them to take away from your film?
I always wanted to make a film that starts a dialogue within the religious community. I hope US missionaries will see the film and examine what kind of messages they are preaching in Africa. I hope that the religious community will see the film and that they will hold their churches accountable for what their money goes to fund in Africa. And, I hope that general audiences who see the film realize that when you unleash a message of hate and intolerance, no one is safe.