Interview: Roger Ross Williams on Becoming an “Accidental Activist” With “God Loves Uganda”

On how a personal journey to reconcile religious beliefs with anti-gay rhetoric led to a movement to defeat the spread of homophobia....Read More
Roger Ross Williams' film "God Loves Uganda"

Just over a week ago, Roger Ross Williams found himself somewhere he never expected to be, sitting in a hotel room with the former vice president of Uganda. Williams has been in surreal spots before, having picked up an Oscar for his short “Music By Prudence,” about the Zimbabwean singer/songwriter Prudence Mabhena, in 2010. Yet there was something even bigger at stake when he met with Gilbert Bukenya, a likely presidential candidate in the East African country in 2016, about the issue of the nation’s institutionalized persecution of its gay citizens where one could be convicted of a capital offense because of their sexuality.

“I always say I’m an accidental activist because I’ve been dragged into the issue and called upon as a spokesperson,” says Williams, bemused by his unexpected position. “There are activists who have been doing this and who speak much better about it than me.”

However, no one has quite laid out the global effort of extremist evangelical groups such as the International House of Prayer to spread anti-gay sentiment as Williams has in his latest film “God Loves Uganda.” A documentary that would be uproariously funny if it weren’t so frightening, the film spans two continents as Williams embeds himself with the Kansas City-based IHOP megachurch where the fiery Lou Engle presides over thousands of parishioners, plenty of whom he’ll deploy overseas as missionaries to “enlighten” the masses in poor, developing countries such as Uganda where their message is accompanied by much-needed basic amenities. Williams follows those missionaries across the Atlantic to find that their homophobic ideas have already taken root amongst a powerful sect of the local pastors who think nothing of showing their flocks outrageous pornographic imagery to suggest homosexuality is immoral and encourage violence against the few willing to be out, such as the gay rights activist David Kato who was brutally killed in 2011.

This is why Williams was beyond overwhelmed when Bukenya confided that after his daughter took in a screening of “God Loves Uganda” in Washington D.C., he’d publicly support repealing the draconian anti-homosexuality laws currently in place in his home country. The change of heart is just one of many that the film has inspired since it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, resulting in a year-long campaign that’s been as full of surprising twists and turns as the film’s production. While headed up to San Francisco where “God Loves Uganda” is currently playing the Roxie Theater, Williams reflected on the otherworldly experience he’s had, from fearing for his life during filming to getting a member of IHOP to reveal her own same-sex relationships to opening up a healthy conversation with churches he never imagined he’d be having 12 months ago.

Roger Ross Williams' film "God Loves Uganda"How did this film come about?

When I was doing “Music By Prudence” in Zimbabwe, I noticed that there was a certain fundamental Christianity that has a hold in subsaharan Africa and because I grew up in the church, I’ve always been interested in faith and religion. I even started thinking about it way back then, so I decided I was going to make a film about religion in Africa. That was as far as I had gotten and I started reading up on what was going on in Uganda.

The first person I met [there] was David Kato and when I met him, I told him I was thinking about religion and he said, “That’s the story that needs to be told. You really need to tell the story of what the damage that fundamentalist Evangelicals from America are doing in my country.” He really gave me that last little push. He gave me this whole background on what was going on there, introduced me to a bunch of activists and then off I went.

There’s actually been many films recently about the subject of gay persecution in Uganda, including one specifically about David Kato called “Call Me Kuchu.” Since you have a few of the same subjects in the film, did an awareness of the other films affect what you wanted to do with yours?

I knew I didn’t want to focus on the activists because there were at least six different films -the French made a film, the British made two films, the Italians made a documentary – that all follow the same group of activists in Uganda. So I knew that I wanted to follow faith leaders. But there was obviously going to be some overlap. The interview I did with David was just research really. I never intended to use that, then I ended up using it because of the footage of David’s funeral and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo’s role in that funeral when he stepped up.

But for me, this was always about the dialogue between the two different sides of the faith community. Those that believe the Kapya Kaoma and Bishop Christophers that believe the church is open to everyone and the Lou Engles and Martin Ssempas who believe there’s no place in the church for “sinners.” That’s what always fascinated me because my family, they’re all ministers. I grew up a gay man singing in a gospel choir my whole life, never feeling part of it and in the Ugandan LGBT community, many of them go to church. They all still have faith. But there’s no church for them to go to. They have to sit there on Sunday and listen to a pastor preach anti-gay [rhetoric] in their sermon and that’s kind of my experience, so that’s why the faith side of the story spoke to me.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo in a scene from Roger Ross Williams' "God Loves Uganda"I imagine a lot of your previous work, you’ve been able to distance yourself as an impartial observer, but for this, was it interesting to have things that were very personal to you coming into your professional life?

It made me much more sympathetic towards the evangelicals, even though I had demonized them as much as they had demonized me. The walls quickly came down. The language thing, like the speaking in tongues and the theatrics didn’t frighten me away at all because that’s what I grew up in, so I understood the world I was in and as a gay man, I wanted to go into a place that was most terrifying for me. This film was in some way exploring that part of my past that I ran away from and didn’t have to deal with, so I wanted to go to the most extreme place that made me the most uncomfortable because I think that you create great work when you’re challenged.

For audiences that are more unfamiliar with the church, you could easily watch the first 10 minutes or so enjoying it while also dismissing it since the behavior of Lou Engle and his disciples seems so outlandish and ridiculous. Was it difficult to get the film to a place where you push past that and get the audience to take all this seriously?

That’s exactly [what happened]. I did the Sundance Story and Edit Lab last summer and in the first assembly of this film, it was mostly the evangelical world and very little of Bishop Christopher. I don’t think Kapya was in it at all actually. And I remember we had our first screening with eight or nine advisers at the Sundance Lab and one of them, Joe Bini, who’s Werner Herzog’s editor, came out and was like, “That’s the harshest cinematic assault I’ve ever experienced.” [At the Lab], you sit around and talk about the film and everyone was so angry and it was so shocking that they couldn’t watch the film. They couldn’t process anything. It was too overwhelming.

One of the advisers at Sundance said something that stuck with me, which was “You need to present their best face.” There were a lot of really harsh things said that I ended up taking out of the film because I wanted people to be able to connect and relate. I took out a lot of this talk about how gays are possessed by demons and all this stuff and I toned it down so it was more palatable and watchable.

Because I come from that background, it didn’t seem that crazy to me. It just seemed like okay, this is normal. This is church. [laughs] But then I realized for an audience that didn’t experience that fundamentalist, evangelical world, it was totally over the top. Then I added the other voices, and after the Lab, I went back to Uganda and did more filming with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo to really pump up his part of the story and with Kapya Kaoma, so there was another voice. I was too inside my own head and when I came out of the lab, it was a game-changer.

Jo Anna Watson in a scene from Roger Ross Williams' "God Loves Uganda"This may be an oddball question, but around the time you were working on this, you were also paying the bills as the go-to director for “Undercover Boss.” Since I imagine you had to film some of this under false pretenses, was there a connection between the two?

No, because a show like “Undercover Boss,” it’s TV reality, which is not really real at all. [laughs] But with “God Loves Uganda,” yes, I did actually have to go undercover in Uganda when I was with the Ugandan pastors because these are men who hold the Bible up and say, “This book says these people must be killed.” These are men who were forming their own militias to go door to door and hunt down homosexuals themselves because they felt the government wasn’t moving fast enough. And I would be with them as they were saying the most crazy stuff. I was always on edge, not knowing if any minute they’re going to find out about me.

Pastors are the most powerful people in Africa and the richest. I was with a pastor that had the military guarding him and police escorts through the streets of Kampala and there was always the fear that he could turn all that on me, if he found out. So when that moment happened — I got outed by e-mail to one of the evangelicals — that was just an out-of-body terrifying moment. But they decided to pray for me and that was because they said, “You’re kind of high profile and we can’t really [kill you], so we’re going to use you as an example. We’re going to cure you.” [laughs]

Was that actually a liberating moment for you?

It was and it wasn’t. It was liberating to be free of them. But it was not because I lost access. A couple of the pastors dropped out. But what was amazing is it got to this other level because Jo Anna Watson [an American missionary affiliated with IHOP] wouldn’t speak to me for several months, then finally I was in Uganda and I just called her and said, “Jo Anna, can we just talk and go to lunch?”

We went to lunch and she handed me a book about a man who had been “saved” from homosexuality that IHOP had put out. They publish books – lots of them – and she’s like, “He’s a friend of mine from IHOP and he can talk to you and you can be rescued from the bondage of homosexuality.” [laughs] And she said, “And I have something to tell you.” And I was like, “What?” She said, “I have been rescued from the bondage of homosexuality. I have been attracted to women.” And I was like, “Oh my God! “YESSSS!!!” Then she said to me, “And would you like to continue filming with me?” I just couldn’t believe it. There’s this negative thing that ends up with this silver lining. And that’s how I got Jo Anna to say on camera that she was attracted to women.

Roger Ross Williams' "God Loves Uganda"So it was very liberating. [Afterwards] everywhere I’d go, everyone knew me as the “homosexual,” but I’d already had in the can what I was going to have from the anti-gay pastors because they’re just one note. How many times can you see someone standing there on the pulpit saying how evil homosexuals are? But what I was interested in was the ground game. The kids from IHOP I always compare to kids who join the military to go and fight in Iraq because they believe there are weapons of mass destruction. They’re naive and they’re like this huge army. There’s thousands of kids and they’re all praying and speaking in tongues and this army’s going to go out and conquer the world and spread the good news. I wanted to show how it works on the ground in Uganda.

Fortunately, you seem to have built up an army of your own while taking this film on the road. What’s it been like?

It’s been just an extraordinary journey. I thought the film would be much more polarizing and it ended up being this thing that actually has brought the two sides together. It started at Sundance. Every year, a group of 150 Evangelical students from all over the country go to Sundance and they invite films that have anything to do with faith to have a discussion and a panel. It’s done in a church in a basement in Park City. We were really nervous to do this and the panel was run by Fuller Seminary, which is the largest Evangelical seminary in the world. But it was an amazing and powerful conversation.

A mother, who was an Evangelical and had a gay child, stood up and said her church rejected them, so she formed her own group of parents of LGBT Evangelicals. She was crying and kid after kid came up to me and said, “I’m in a theology school in Louisiana…” or “I’m bisexual or I’m gay and I don’t know what to do.” So I realized we had this potential then. What happened [from there] is that I was invited to Fuller Seminary [where] we had a panel and screening, which was unprecedented, and we realized this was an outreach campaign.

The film has traveled to churches all across the country and we now have 500 churches across America who’ve requested to see the film. It’s been extraordinary. We’ve partnered with Princeton Seminary and Fuller ended up writing our study guide around the film, so we have a very conservative Evangelical School that was very pro-Prop. 8, but they end up partnering with us.

As the director of this film, you become a spokesperson for this issue, even though that may not be your intention. Is it a role you’ve grown comfortable with?

That’s something that I’ve struggled with because I’m a filmmaker and it was just a fascinating story that I wanted to tell and I’m going to go on and tell another story that’ll be completely different. Since Sundance until now, the last eight months, I’ve become much more comfortable talking about this issue, but it’s important that I leave the film so that organizations like the Fledgling Fund and the Ford Foundation, which has given us research, and activists and faith communities can use it and we’re putting things in place that [will enable] the film to live on forever. But I’m going to go on and make other films.

“God Loves Uganda” is currently in theaters across the country. A full list is here. You can also request a screening here. The film will also play DOC NYC at the IFC Center in New York on November 19th.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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