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God Loves Uganda

A scalding appraisal of the Christian missionary movement in Africa, "God Loves Uganda" has a ferocious mission of its own: to portray American evangelicals as arrogant and deluded, yet dangerously effective in their suppression of sexual freedoms.

With:
With: Lou Engle, Joanna Watson, Jono Hall, Kapya Kaoma, Christopher Senyonjo, Jesse Digges, Rachelle Digges, Robert Kayanja, Martin Ssempa, Scott Lively.

A scalding appraisal of the Christian missionary movement in Africa, “God Loves Uganda” has a ferocious mission of its own: to portray American evangelicals as arrogant and deluded, yet dangerously effective in their suppression of sexual freedoms. On its own angry, preaching-to-the-secular-choir terms, Roger Ross Williams’ forceful polemic succeeds to a startling degree, rightly decrying the use of the gospel to incite homophobia, and allowing the most fervent interviewees to damn themselves with their own proselytizing words. It’s strong, head-shaking stuff, scarcely the measured treatment its subject calls for, but all the more commercial for it.

Christened “the pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill on a 1907 visit, Uganda has become a place of immense prophetic significance for evangelicals. The moral-political vacuum left by the 1979 deposing of Idi Amin was soon filled by missionaries, who treated the country as an ideological testing ground — a place to perfect their model for preaching the gospel to all nations. The pic suggests the breadth of Christian influence with recurring shots of young Ugandan men preaching in the streets of Kampala, shouting their calls for repentance at passing cars.

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Williams, who came by his subject while shooting his Oscar-winning short “Music by Prudence” in Africa, devotes much of his screentime to evangelical activities in the U.S., tracing what he perceives as a fundamentalist epidemic back to its source. He spends considerable screentime at the Intl. House of Prayer, a charismatic Christian organization based in Kansas City, Mo., where the camera unflinchingly observes young evangelicals praying, worshipping, writhing on the floor, speaking in tongues and arming themselves for spiritual duty abroad.

There are few things more alienating to witness than decontextualized images of another person’s intense religious experience, and these shots score easy points, mercifully without devolving into the ominous music cues of the similar footage in 2006’s “Jesus Camp.” Williams’ argument is made more effectively by the fervent Christian leaders he interviews, chiefly IHOP senior leader Lou Engle and Uganda-based missionary Joanna Watson, both of whom make revealing, humanizing personal admissions amid their otherwise relentless stream of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.

Young members of the org’s mission team in Uganda come off as well-intentioned yet also hopelessly naive, callous in their belief in the superiority of Western conservative values, and unable to connect with the local culture. The docu’s funniest scene finds them trying to evangelize to the food vendors who swarm their van; it’s a remarkably absurdist image of Western imperialism condescending to the Third World, each side trying to sell something to the other.

To its credit, the film focuses its attack not on Christian belief per se, but rather on the movement’s overreaching, sexually repressive agendas. Williams lays out the sobering consequences of the heavily right-wing-backed abstinence campaign, which replaced President Clinton’s family-planning initiatives and led to a sharp rise in Uganda’s AIDS rate.

Even more disturbing are the numerous cited examples of anti-gay extremism in Uganda: the political influence enjoyed by charismatic activist Scott Lively, who says gays are to blame for Nazi Germany; the murder of local LGBT activist David Kato and the subsequent picketing at his funeral; the hysterical sermons of pastor Martin Ssempa, who uses gay-porn slide shows to whip his congregation into an “Africans against sodomy” lather; and, most urgently, a pending bill that would make homosexual activity punishable by death.

With little interest in attributing any social benefits or genuinely altruistic impulses to the missionary movement, Williams allows local Bishop Christopher Senyonjo to be the reasonable face of Christianity in Uganda, calling for an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. It’s an attitude the film outwardly endorses but doesn’t entirely embody, as far as evangelicals are concerned.

Tech credits are solid.

God Loves Uganda

Documentary

Production: A Full Credit Prods. and Motto Pictures production. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Julie Goldman, Roger Ross Williams. Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Written by Williams, Richard Hankin, Benjamin Gray.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Derek Wiesehahn; editors, Hankin, Gray; music, Mark degli Antoni; sound, Charles Cann, Bryan Kisembo Delon, Stuart Deutsch, Michael Haack, Hosea Jemba, Stephen Kane, Timothy Munger, Jerry Stein; re-recording mixer, Peter Waggoner; line producer, Carolyn Hepburn; associate producers, Paige Ruane, Casper de Boer, Betsy Ford. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2013. Running time: 102 MIN.

Cast: With: Lou Engle, Joanna Watson, Jono Hall, Kapya Kaoma, Christopher Senyonjo, Jesse Digges, Rachelle Digges, Robert Kayanja, Martin Ssempa, Scott Lively.

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