Roger Ross Williams on 'God Loves Uganda'

Ashley Clark

Recently the deserved winner of the Youth Jury Prize at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, God Loves Uganda is a revealing and frightening documentary focusing on the efforts of the American International House of Prayer [IHOP] to spread Christianity and promote the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which included the death penalty for gays and lesbians. We sat down with its director, New York-based Roger Ross Williams, for a chat.

GFW: What prompted you take this on as a subject?
Roger Ross Williams: I grew up in the church. My father was a leader in the church, my sister was a minister. My whole family are ministers. Religion is the family business. I never felt connected to the church, being a gay man. I always felt outside of that. That’s what drew me to it. I was interested in the power of religion for both good and evil. It could make people feel good or bad about themselves.

My last film was [Academy Award-winning short 'Music For Prudence', 2010] in Zimbabwe and I saw how deeply religious it was in sub-Saharan Africa. There was a church on almost every corner. It was fundamentalist Christianity, not progressive or even moderate. So when I’d heard about what was going on in Uganda I went there and the first person I met was [murdered LBGT activist] David Kato. He brought along some activists for me to meet and he encouraged me to make a film about American evangelicals. There had been some recording and reporting and that’s what really started the journey.

How did the missionaries react to you as a filmmaker?
It took about a year-and-a-half to get [key IHOP figure] Pastor Lou Engle to do the interview. He didn’t want to talk about Uganda because he went there at a time when other America evangelicals, for PR reasons, were distancing themselves from the anti-gay bill. He ran into the fire while everyone else was running out. Now he thinks it’s the greatest mistake of his life, and he wanted to put it behind him. The only time he’s ever talked about it is in this film. To get him to do this took a lot of convincing. There was a lot of false starts. Ultimately Jono, the communications director, and Mike, the global leader of IHOP, convinced him. Lou was very nervous, as was I. It was so weird facing off and sitting there and we were both very uncomfortable. When I first went to IHOP, the first thing Jono said to my assistant producer was “You’re just part of the gay agenda”. So he knew, but he did it anyway.

In Lou’s interview – and I didn’t use this in the film – he said that he was sending his son to do a mission within America. He sends his son to go into the darkest place in America that he could think of to preach the gospel. So he sent his son to Castro Street [the legendary gay district in San Francisco]! He said, “My son and the IHOP kids stood out there and they started preaching the gospel in the heart of evil! He set up the house of prayer on Castro Street”.

It would seem clear to a fair-minded person that what the IHOP contingent are saying is reprehensible, but the film’s quite balanced. It’s not a polemic; there’s no guiding voiceover to tell you what to think. You were happy to give them enough rope to hang themselves?
It was really important to me that they spoke for themselves, and that I painted them in the best possible light. There was a lot of more damning stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. I went to the Sundance Documentary Story and Edit Lab with a rough assembly of footage. When I showed it to the advisors there, they were so angry they couldn’t even watch the film. There was such a strong reaction that I had to dial it back a bit so people could digest and engage critically, and to try to take the journey that I took.

I started the process really angry and with a wall up, like, “These people are evil and they hate me for who I am!” That wall came down a little bit over the years of getting to know them. For both parties, that was interesting. I want to make films and go places where I’m uncomfortable and that frighten me. It was an interesting and eye-opening process because I actually liked a lot of people in my film despite their views.

Rachelle and Jesse Digges, Missionaries, at the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City.

What sort of feedback have you had from the IHOP?
Jono actually said he would come with me to film festivals and stand up for what he believed. I had initially invited him to Sundance, but I changed my mind because I thought it could be be too difficult for him. He was disappointed because he really wanted to go. I even had a pass for him and everything. In the end I just didn’t want to put him through that. I’d rather a mixed audience having a debate rather than everyone be too focused on one thing... in this case: him.

Tell me about the courageous Bishop Senyonjo [a Ugandan bishop featured in the film who was excommunicated from the church on account of his liberal views].
He’s an amazing man. He is steadfast in beliefs. In the same way that Lou believes he is getting his orders directly from God to fight the three evils of homosexuality, Islam and abortion, Senyonjo believes that he is getting a message directly from God that faith and the kingdom of heaven is open to everyone. He has suffered, he was in poverty, he lost everything. But he says he has a higher power driving him and he had no choice. He’s an amazing man and he got an incredible reception at Sundance; a standing ovation at all six screenings. He came up every single time and it was a pretty amazing experience. He continues to inspire a lot of people and he’s one of the few alternative voices in Uganda. He has a chapel in a garage in Kampala and that’s where all the people – the gays, the single mothers – rejected by the church go.

It’s timely in terms of a lot of the current dialogue in popular culture. I’m thinking of Kony 2012 on one end, and The Book of Mormon on the other.
The Book Of Mormon inspired me! When I was shooting with the kids from IHOP, what was going through my mind was that musical. It’s a serious subject so I didn’t want to take it to that extreme, but when you meet the two Ugandan missionary guys and they’re like, “There’s no jokes in Kansas City, everyone is praying all the time”, I was like, “What do you think Kansas City is like?!”

Kony 2012, so... [dramatic pause] at the last screening at Sundance, at the Egyptian Theatre on a Friday night at 6pm, these Invisible Children vans pulled up outside of the theatre and who was there but Jason Russell himself! We are now actually talking with Invisible Children and about taking the film to a convention in August. It will be interesting!

'God Loves Uganda' hits US theatres this Friday (Oct 11)

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