Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams is probably best known for getting Kanye'd at the Academy Awards in 2010. Fellow producer Elinor Burkett charged the stage and blasted Williams before he could deliver his speech. It was a curious development for Williams' upbeat documentary Music by Prudence, which spotlighted Prudence Mabhena, a disabled but remarkably gifted Zimbabwean musician.
When the filmmaker arrived at the Tivoli in Kansas City on September 19, Williams had just returned from Capetown, South Africa, where he's making a film about former Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
Williams' most recent movie, God Loves Uganda, was also shot in Africa, but Kansas City is important to it. The Tivoli event was part of the Reformation Project, a nonprofit group trying to change the way churches view and teach about homosexuality.
During the three years of filming, Williams interviewed missionaries from Grandview-based International House of Prayer (IHOP), including Lou Engle, which sends missionaries to Uganda and other nations and has supported conversion therapy in an attempt to "cure" homosexuality. In Uganda, an anti-homosexuality bill in Parliament would penalize gays with death if enacted.
God Loves Uganda explores how the connection between the United States and Uganda has resulted in potentially draconian legislation. The film shows Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Glenwood Arts in Overland Park as part of the Kansas International Film Festival.
Williams discussed the film with The Pitch.
The Pitch: Africa is familiar territory for you.
Williams: I spent many years in Africa, in Zimbabwe, shooting that film [Music by Prudence]. That climate inspired me a little because I noticed the sort of hold of especially fundamentalist Christianity in Zimbabwe and sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, there's, like many other African countries, a church on every corner, so I noticed that and thought it was fascinating how Jesus was sort of flowing around.
Why has Africa been such fertile ground for homophobic violence?
In a place like Uganda, it's a very corrupt country, one of the most corrupt in the world. People take the law into their own hands. For example, let's say someone hits a woman and a child with their car, the people will beat the person to death before the police arrive. It becomes this scene of mob violence.
Then [anti-gay American] pastor Scott Lively came to Uganda, and said this lie that Western gays were coming in to recruit their children. Anytime there's a threat to the tribal society, you fight for the tribe, to the death.
What you have in Uganda is pastors, like Martin Ssempa, who build their ministry on whipping people up into a frenzy. And they do that in order to get money and favor from the American fundamentalist community, who they believe want to support this kind of anti-LGBT hatred because they're frustrated here in the U.S. He also whips them up because it's like an act.
It's like a show. People go for the show. They get worked up, and what happens is that with Ugandans, and in many other countries, the gay person becomes the scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in their life.
It's not a country where homosexuality is what they're worried about. They're worried about their next meal. They're worried about jobs and how to survive. You can distract people from that by creating this enemy. The government here does that well. It's an easy sort of group to scapegoat.
You say you have a good poker face. Was it tough to keep it up during some of the sermons you show in the film or when KC-based missionaries deny even knowing about the "Kill the Gays" bill?