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God Loves Uganda

Director: Roger Ross Williams

(Full Credit Productions and Motto Pictures; US DVD: 19 May 2014)

It’s simple to praise a message movie when you agree with the message. In God Loves Uganda, Roger Ross Williams’ documentary about the American Evangelical movement’s role in instigating Uganda’s turn toward biblical law and the death penalty for homosexuality, the message is that this turn toward discrimination is wrong and should not be tolerated.


Of course it’s wrong, but the issue is so intriguing because the Evangelical leaders like Lou Engle and Scott Lively don’t seem to think so. In fact, they believe in their bones that homosexuality is a sin akin to theft, rape, and murder, as do the missionaries who are sent to Uganda to spread this hateful doctrine. A number of questions are raised as a result, and I’m afraid that there aren’t any easy answers.


The main question asked is, “To what extent should these beliefs be tolerated?” In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees an individual the right to think freely. However, as the recent reactions to both Donald Sterling and Paula Deen have shown, there are consequences to expressing unpopular beliefs. It’s a slippery slope to straddle, and the American Evangelical Movement is at once extremely popular and beloved in certain circles and opposed and detested in others. I confess that I don’t know any Evangelicals, but I wouldn’t want to spend time with the ones featured in Williams’ film.


Williams, as well, seems to honor the group’s liberty to think as they wish, but rightfully takes issue with their move toward cultural imperialism. If the Evangelicals portrayed in the film want to preach homophobia to one another in the confines of their own churches, that’s their own prerogative. If, however, they’re going to take that message to Uganda and try to change the cultural landscape for the worse, that is colonialist propaganda, and it deserves comparison to the Third Reich and other groups that aim to poison the world with prejudice.


Ultimately, one’s interest and enjoyment of the film will largely depend on perspective and education. I wasn’t aware that the Evangelical movement was responsible for the draconian laws in Uganda, so I was at once fascinated and disturbed. Moreover, since I don’t agree with these discriminatory practices, the film angered me in the way it had intended.


However, if one already knows about this, or if she don’t agree with the film’s message, then she might not get anything out of it. God Loves Uganda exists to educate and enrage; it paints a clear portrait of good versus evil, with the Evangelicals depicted as evil and anyone who opposes their presence in Uganda and believes in the freedom of homosexuals as good. If subtlety, nuance, and complexity are necessary components for the admiration of a documentary, however, many will likely be disappointed to find that this is defiantly one-sided.


Williams uses interviews, hidden camera footage, and good old-fashioned cinema vérité technique to tell his story. He is wise enough to give the Evangelicals camera time so that they can explain their perspective, but at the end of the day, the audience knows where Williams stands, and it’s obvious that he doesn’t agree with or even fully comprehend their views.


In addition to the film, the DVD offers a number of deleted scenes and a collection of bonus shorts. All of them are around five minutes, and they aren’t riveting or important enough to warrant full attention. They serve as brief video clips to compliment the feature length documentary, and nothing would be lost by skipping them.


As exposé, God for Uganda is important and timely. As cinema, it’s somewhat forgettable. The problem with “issue films” in general is that they don’t really need to be seen in order to learn the lesson. Instead, one can easily read about the film and comprehend everything they need to know. Contrast this to the documentaries by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, and the difference becomes apparent. I can tell you what Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is about, but the experience of watching it is unique and unforgettable. The same can’t be said about God Loves Uganda.


Even though I agree with Williams’ message and believe that the film raises a number of interesting and thought-provoking points about the dangers of free speech and religious expression, I ultimately could have gotten the same information by reading the synopsis on IMDB.

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Jon Lisi received his MA in Cinema Studies from New York University and his BA in New Media from Fairfield University. In addition to his monthly column here at PopMatters, he writes Book and DVD reviews on a regular basis. He has also contributed to the International Journal of Communication, the Journal of American Studies in Turkey, Hollywood.com, and the-artifice.com. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/


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