Sundance opened last Thursday night with a documentary in its premiere spot: Twenty Feet From Stardom, a rousing crowd-pleaser that documents the life of backup singers to superstar musicians like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. It’s no secret that we live in a golden age of documentaries, and they are consistently the better films at Sundance—consider last year’s completely brilliant The Queen of Versailles, arguably the breakout of the festival.
Among the popular topics for American documentarians over the last few years: evangelical Christians, who seem to inspire a mix of curiosity, sympathy, and repulsion among a certain cohort of Sundance-bound filmmakers. Jesus Camp, which was nominated for an Oscar, is perhaps the most notable of these films; it told the story of summer camps for evangelical children.
God Loves Uganda, which premiered on Friday at Sundance, is more disturbing: It documents the efforts of evangelicals to export America’s culture war to Africa. Missionaries, of course, have been going to Africa for centuries now. What’s different is an effort not just to bring Jesus to Africa, but the entire political agenda of the American conservative movement. They’re not just bringing the message that “Jesus saves,” but a raft of positions about which Christians may disagree: abstinence over birth control, adoption over abortion, and, most disturbingly, the complete eradication of any trace of homosexuality from society.
Director Roger Ross William’s film is centered on Uganda and the activities of the International House of Prayer, a vehemently anti-gay church headquartered in Kansas City.* The church preaches that homosexuality is a sin that can be resisted and even cured by prayer. According to the film, the church has helped to foment a new level of hatred and violence against gays in Uganda. The film alleges, in fact, that the church, along with similar groups, led Ugandan politicians to introduce a law (the “Kill the Gays” bill) that would make it a capital offense to be gay, and inspired the murder of David Kato, a gay rights activist.
The story God Loves Uganda tells is damning. Director William, who grew up in a religious household, said he is “fascinated by both religion and its power to do evil.” It is, nonetheless, worth asking whether the anti-gay views of the American church can be so clearly blamed for what is happening in a society where homophobia was already prevalent. And the documentary vacillates between a heavy-handed depiction of crazed, hateful cultists, and a more earnest effort to chronicle the lives of well-meaning American missionaries. But somewhere in there is a sharp message, delivered best in the film by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who asks which part of the Christian gospels calls for evangelizing hatred?
* This post orginally placed the International House of Prayer headquarters in Kansas. They are in Kansas City, Mo.