Why God Loves Uganda Should Win That Oscar

A new documentary explores the American connection to the virulently homophobic climate in Uganda, and is now on the short list to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

BY Trudy Ring

October 22 2013 5:00 AM ET UPDATED: December 06 2013 12:26 PM ET

When people with opposing viewpoints engage in dialogue, change is possible. It doesn’t happen all the time, or always easily, but it happens.

That’s what filmmaker Roger Ross Williams is seeing with the dialogue around God Loves Uganda, his powerful new documentary about American fundamentalist Christians’ export of homophobia to Africa.

The impact of that meaningful dialogue is likely among the chief reasons Williams' latest documentary was just announced as a serious contender for next year's Oscar for Best Documentary, earning a spot on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' "short list" for the 2014 Academy Awards, along with 14 other films, according to the Associated Press. Williams already has an Oscar at home, which he earned in 2010 for his documentary short Music by Prudence. Official nominees for next year's Oscars will be announced January 16, 2014 and the 86th Annual Academy Awards will be take place March 2.

“The most amazing thing happened at this recent screening in Malawi,” says Williams, whose film has been shown around the world and is now having a theatrical release in the U.S.

After a group of clergy and laypeople, the latter largely LGBT but closeted, viewed the movie, they engaged in a nationally broadcast debate about homosexuality, with most of the religious leaders condemning it. But then a few of the LGBT people in the audience made coming-out statements, and one of the ministers recanted the antigay comments he had made earlier. “I’m withdrawing my statement,” he said. “Gays and lesbians are good.”

“That’s why I made the film — moments like that,” says Williams. The minister who recanted said he’d never met a gay person, at least one he knew was gay and the film and the dialogue made him realize they were humans like him. “They had built up this monster in their minds,” Williams says of the religious leaders.

In making God Loves Uganda, Williams found that many of the fundamentalist Christians spreading their antigay dogma abroad are not monsters either, although their message is a harmful one.

“What really surprised me was how nice and well-mannered the fundamentalist evangelicals were,” he says. “I had in my mind, as a gay man, demonized them, the same way they had demonized us. … They’re really nice and you like them, and they’re preaching something really dangerous and don’t even realize it’s dangerous.”

Step inside that Malawi screening in the video below: 

 

Williams thinks his film, along with other work being done by LGBT advocates, can help bring people to this realization. God Loves Uganda is the first feature-length documentary directed and produced by Williams, a 2010 Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Short Subject with Music by Prudence, a portrait of Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Prudence Mabhena and her band; she and all the band members have physical disabilities.

To film Music by Prudence, Williams made his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and he was struck by the strong influence of fundamentalist Christianity on the region. Africans, he says, are highly spiritual people anyway, and conservative Christian ministers have found a ready audience, especially by preaching a prosperity gospel to a population that’s vulnerable to this message.

They’ve also brought an antigay message, though, which has resulted in such legislation as Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, some versions of which would prescribe the death penalty in certain cases. The bill has yet to be passed by the nation’s parliament, but simply by being proposed, it serves as a tool that can be used to threaten LGBT people, Williams says.

“After reading about the bill, I thought, Uganda’s the perfect place to explore the evangelical fundamentalist hold on the continent,” he says.

Tags: film, Uganda

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