When news first broke of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, introduced in 2009 and still under consideration in the country’s parliament, outrage spread quickly among the international community. Not surprisingly, many have framed the prospective law, which would not only fully criminalize same-sex relationships in Uganda but also make them punishable by death, as a symptom of an aggressively backward-thinking culture. But where did the sentiments behind the resolution originate? The thesis of God Loves Uganda, an eye-opening, often-infuriating new documentary, is that the roots of the so-called Kill The Gays bill can be traced not to Africa, but to conservative Middle America. It’s from there that a self-proclaimed army of evangelicals have emerged, setting their sights on the poorest regions of Africa. “I think everyone wants to replicate their values,” chirps a young missionary—and indeed, what’s troubling about these pilgrimages to the “firepot of spiritual renewal” is that church groups, like the far-reaching International House Of Prayer, are importing their prejudices along with the gospel. As slain LGBT activist David Kato points out in an archival clip, doctrines of hate are being fed to impressionable youths, who then take the law into their own hands.
Kato, who was murdered in 2011, was the key figure of Call Me Kuchu, the year’s other documentary on homophobia in Uganda. Like that film, God Loves Uganda has advocacy aims, and director Roger Ross Williams occasionally overplays the theatrical dread—cutting, for example, between ominous slow-motion shots of children running and close-ups of U.S. churchgoers in the throes of a religious experience. Yet he also approaches the connections between the two countries with muckraking clarity, demonstrating how dangerous ideas are spread from one to the other. It’s not just mainstream Christianity that’s finding a foothold: Fringe figures like Scott Lively, who teaches that homosexuals invented Nazism, are being treated as theological experts in Uganda. Williams also takes a couple of fascinating detours, as when he explores how the nation was once a model in AIDS containment, thanks to its condom-awareness program, but lost that distinction when the Bush administration threatened to cut U.S. funding if abstinence wasn’t encouraged instead.
Those who demand pure objectivity from their documentaries may stumble on God Loves Uganda, which never pretends to be impartial, probably because it’s next to impossible to do so when tackling this topic. (As both sides of the debate would likely agree, this is a moral issue.) Still, Williams mostly plays fair, even going as far as affording some of the missionaries the opportunity to condemn the bill on camera. (In a truly cowardly display, two of them feign ignorance over the specifics of the law, relinquishing themselves of the responsibility of weighing in on its righteousness.) Mostly, the director allows his interview subjects to make the points for him; among the featured opponents of the bill are a Zambian reverend living in Boston and former bishop Christopher Senyonjo, excommunicated from the church for supporting Uganda’s LGBT community. That latter figure may be the film’s moral center, devoted as he is to counteracting the ocean of intolerance flooding into Africa from the West. “If you teach your child to love other people when he is young, he’ll grow up loving them,” he tells a small congregation. Like his hate-mongering opponents, Senyonjo knows that Uganda’s future rests with the next generation.