Review: God Loves Uganda

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god loves uganda still

Earlier this week, a law was signed by the president of Uganda that makes homosexuality an offense punishable with life imprisonment. While this legislation is being called reprehensible by human rights advocates around the world, many Ugandan politicians and citizens stand adamantly by it, holding fast to Christian-based beliefs that God-approved, male-female relationships are right and everything else is wrong. 

How did such an anti-gay climate -- one that often results in acts of violence committed against both open and suspected homosexuals and their allies -- come about in this small East African nation in the first place? This is the complex and important question that God Loves Uganda attempts to answer. 

Director Roger Ross Williams interviews several observers and activists from both sides of Uganda’s culture wars but largely focuses on the efforts and effects of missionary workers from Kansas City. Part of a megachurch operation known as the International House of Prayer (IHOP), these mostly white and very passionate "soldiers of God" have set their sights on Uganda in particular as a place that needs their spiritual attention. 

Williams follows a group of young IHOP travelers as they giggle their way through culture shock before going about fulfilling their chosen mission to visit villages struggling under extreme poverty and alarmingly high rates of HIV. It's here they try to save the souls of Ugandans with their charismatic and musical prayer practices, and they also take things a step further by training a select few locals to carry their work forward. This dedicated Christian army knows they can only reach so many people themselves, so they hope to start a ripple effect by encouraging others to join them on the "front lines" in this battle to save billions of souls.  

God Loves Uganda balances scenes of the Christian missionaries with interviews featuring comparatively liberal religious leaders and hidden camera footage revealing "educational" sessions led by America-based activists telling Ugandans of the supposed horrors of homosexuality. It's also revealed that condom distribution efforts that made a positive difference during the '90s have been replaced by ineffective abstinence-only programs and much more preaching, and many religious leaders who have taken up the cause of the Religious Right are coincidentally much richer these days.

Though the filmmakers' beliefs almost certainly clash with the missionaries and anti-gay leaders featured in the film, Williams and his team do not resort to low blows or embellishment. When you have footage of Ugandan leaders telling citizens that gays are responsible for the Holocaust and will try to recruit their children, the conditions speak for themselves. Each moment and observation included in the film brings context to the unfolding events of the country's legislative future (as the film ends the anti-gay laws are still up in the air), and it is the task of examining the roots of intolerance that serves as God Loves Uganda's own mission.

The 2012 (also very fine) documentary Call Me Kuchu serves as a good companion piece to this film, as it focuses primarily on the Ugandan LGBT community and the realities of living in a homophobic climate. It was here that many Americans first learned about David Kato, the country's first openly gay man and a victim of murder at the hands of his anti-gay countrymen. God Loves Uganda features Kato and his friends in a few brief scenes, but Williams' decision to shine a spotlight on the opposing players in many ways presents an even more unsettling perspective.  

Specifically, one of the biggest takeaways of God Loves Uganda has to do with the unwieldy consequences of well-financed evangelism. One of the poorest countries in the nation, Uganda has been the recipient of a great deal of money over the years from conservative and Christian-backed sources -- and that money didn't come free. It's impossible to accept assistance without consenting to certain obligations, and in this case those obligations (to uphold various fundamentalist beliefs) have had repercussions that continue to spiral out of control.

Though still an unfathomable situation, much is revealed by this well-made and scarily illuminating documentary. No matter what your spiritual leanings are, now is the time to pay attention to Uganda. 

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