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?
For me, I was just excited that I was able to document the absurdity of it all. That person, that 20-year-old girl, when she says to that wise old [Ugandan] woman in her hut, "I've come all this way across the ocean to deliver a message to you," that means something because she represents everything that America represents. She represents money and power and wealth.
The African thinks, "Oh, this is America." America has done a really great job, mostly via Hollywood, of creating this amazing myth about us. But it is the wealthiest country in the world. You want to, by connection, listen to that, this 20-year-old girl who has no idea about my life or my culture.
How tricky was it to get Lou Engle and the other people at IHOP to talk with you? What's fascinating is how unguarded they are in the film. Engle, for example, attributes his faith to keeping him away from pornography.
One of the things about the evangelical faith is that you're kind of rewarded for coming back like a George W. Bush, a redemption from alcoholism, lesbianism in her [Rev. Jo Anna Watson's] case, porn in Lou Engle's case. People are like, "Yay! He conquered porn!"
Because you're gay, was it tough to get the missionaries from IHOP to talk with you?
No, if anything, they wanted to cure me. [Laughs.] Jono [Hall, director of media at IHOP] says he specializes in sexual brokenness, so we can help you overcome your [sickness]. I didn't say anything. And Jesse prayed over me a lot in Uganda.
With Uganda, it was different. It's illegal, iffy, and you can be arrested. I was way more careful in Uganda, but they all found out anyway. It's scary in Uganda.
Your film also includes two prominent Christian clergymen who've been fighting for the rights of LBGT people in the country. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has taken a lot of grief for his stands, but how did you find Ungandan-born Rev. Kapya Kaoma from Boston, who has gone undercover to reveal how harsh the bill and the punishments for LGBT people are?
Rev. Kapya Kaoma's work is not that widely read, but if you do your research it's not hard to find. His work is for Public Research Associates. He did a paper called "Globalizing the Culture Wars" about the influence of American missionaries on Africa, so I read that report.
Your film includes footage of Scott Lively, who is now being tried for crimes against humanity. He's not that well known in America, but he's got power abroad that, say, the Westboro Baptist Church could never have. Why do you think that is?
Because of America and what America represents, all you have to do is say he's Dr. Lively, and he can go to Uganda and address the Parliament for five hours. They don't differentiate between the crackpots and the legitimate. They don't know he's an extremist. They just know he's an American. He's a doctor who says he's an expert on homosexuality.
Four More to Watch
The Beltway Sniper killings terrified America in 2002, but French-born director Alexandre Moors hasn't made the usual serial-killer picture. He's more interested in the twisted father-son relationship between John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond). Washington and Richmond are terrific; the former exudes an odd paternalism, a glimpse at what the teenage Malvo must have mistaken for a role model. (5:35 p.m. Friday, October 4)
Pittsburgh filmmaker Steve Hoover's Blood Brother follows his childhood pal Rocky Braat as he volunteers at an orphanage outside Chennai, India, for children with HIV. Braat had a difficult childhood, and now he is among children who are clearly suffering. Nonetheless, the kids are charming onscreen, and Hoover shows us why Braat wants to take care of them. (5:35 p.m. Saturday, October 5)
PBS reportedly got cold feet about broadcasting this film. Kansas-born billionaires Charles and David Koch have a long political reach (and no arts or humanities outfit — including public broadcasting — is eager to lessen David Koch's contributions), and they'd probably prefer that few people see this overview of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Since that case, people like the Kochs have been able to make political contributions without leaving their fingerprints, helping some pretty heinous agendas get through state legislatures and Congress. Citizen Koch doesn't spend much time on the Kochs themselves but instead follows one of their candidates, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and demonstrates how his election and his policies are directly beholden to them. The real star of the film is former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who couldn't get a seat at the Republican TV debates in 2011 and 2012, in part because of his refusal to take money from the Koch-backed Citizens for Prosperity. Co-director Carl Deal takes part in a Q&A via Skype after the 5:30 p.m. screening Friday, October 4.
In the Lansing Correctional Facility, former opera singer Kirk Carson conducts the East Hills Singers — a choir whose members might, through music, stand a better chance of staying out of prison after release. (Veterans of the choir have only a 15 percent recidivism rate.) Conducting Hope is a fairly straightforward film, but it's also straightforwardly inspiring. The 3 p.m. Saturday, October 5, screening features producer Margie Friedman and a live performance by the East Hills Singers.