Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams’ feature documentary debut God Loves Uganda is the most infuriating and sinister documentary in recent memory. If it’s difficult to take Kansas City’s International House of Prayer seriously on the basis of their acronym (IHOP) alone, the whole enterprise stops being funny once Williams makes it clear quite how predatory their mission of indoctrination in Uganda is.
Exploiting the country’s physical wounds and spiritual void in the wake of Idi Amin’s deposition, IHOP has poured countless millions of dollars into making the country a “better” place, though this channel of aid is a conditional one that comes with an ideological price-tag.
If the church’s mission to ferry young, healthy American evangelists into Uganda to preach the word of God seems noble enough, the darker heart of the matter soon enough becomes apparent. IHOP have recognised in Uganda a cultural niche, an opportunity to succeed where their missions back home have failed, to enforce their cultural values upon an entire generation of youngsters in a manner that isn’t a million miles away from brain-washing. As one interviewee disturbingly notes, because these missionaries are white and speak English, they have a presumption of authority and knowledge to most young Ugandans.
At the end of the day, educating the country’s denizens equates more to spreading the church’s misguided propaganda regarding abstinence in a country crippled by HIV, while rejecting the practicality of condoms and indeed, the most basic tenet of human nature at the same time.
Just as viewers might begin to take this in, Williams delivers a one-two punch, that this ideology extends to a homophobic hate campaign also, in which prominent IHOP-informed Ugandan religious authorities promote a law that not only makes acts of homosexuality illegal, but would give them the death penalty. Furthermore, the cultural chasm between America and Uganda means that outing people as homosexuals in Uganda is life-threatening, resulting in murder.
With such incendiary material, it would be easy for Williams’ film to become a Christian-bashing crusade of its own, yet the director speaks to a number of pragmatic religious figures who are torn between serving the word of God and doing what is right (though, of course, the two are not mutually exclusive).
Perhaps the most compelling figure is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who was ex-communicated from his church in the 1990s for refusing to tell homosexual men that their behaviour was wrong; he is a deeply empathetic figure, asserting that no God would turn their back on someone simply because of their sexual choices. There are many like him, and the film ensures that viewers go away with that impression.
If it can find decent distribution, Williams’ film could become a hot-button documentary for the end-year awards season, opening our eyes to a highly unsettling issue that will likely leave viewers indignant and deeply disturbed.
God Loves Uganda premieres at Sundance London on April 26th.
This article was first posted on April 23, 2013