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Most people know Roger Ross Williams from his 2010 Oscar acceptance speech, or rather, his acceptance speech that was interrupted in Kanye-like fashion by his estranged producer Elinor Burkett, who appeared on the Academy Award stage from seemingly nowhere and stole the mic from the director.
“I know everyone is like, ‘It got you all this attention and you were the big story,’ ” Williams tells The Hollywood Reporter, “But still, I lost that moment. And I’m probably working so hard, striving so hard, to try to get a little of that back.” The good news for Williams is his new documentary God Loves Uganda very well might be his ticket back to the Kodak Theater.
In 2010, after Williams’ documentary Music by Prudence won the Oscar, he returned to Africa to research his next film. “When I was filming Prudence in Zimbabwe I noticed the hold fundamentalist Christianity had on sub-Saharan Africa. So I thought I’d like to make a film about religion in Africa because the prosperity gospel is big business where people are desperate, poor, and sick,” Williams explained.
One of the first people Williams met with on his trip was Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato, who showed the director exactly how American evangelicals were influencing Uganda’s growing anti-homosexuality movement, specifically a newly proposed law that made homosexual sex punishable by death. Kato pleaded with Williams to make his next film, ” ‘about the damage the fundamentalist are having in my country,’ ” Williams recalls. “He inspired me and gave me that push.”
Kato introduced Williams to the key players in the activist community and gave him the background necessary to help get the documentary off the ground. During his time with Kato, Williams was struck by how paranoid the openly gay activist behaved, so much so “he felt like he couldn’t even be seen on the street.”
It turns out Kato’s paranoia was not without merit. Soon after Williams returned to America, Kato was brutally murdered (Kato’s funeral is a key moment in the documentary). Producer Julie Goldman tells THR that Kato’s death gave Williams a new sense of determination: “It was devastating and made it much more immediate that this was a critical story that had to be told. Roger had this need to get back there and do it.”
Williams, who like Kato is openly gay, returned to Uganda with an understanding of the fear Kato was experiencing before his death. “I was very nervous. [Homosexuality] is illegal over there and I was afraid to be out. I was talking to vehemently anti-gay pastors. I was totally freaked out that they were going to find out about me at any time and I didn’t know what they were going to do.”
Two-thirds of the way through filming, Williams’ worst fear became a reality when an e-mail was sent to Ugandan religious leaders outing Williams as being gay and part of the “gay agenda.” “One of the biggest anti-gay pastors invited me to his house for dinner. And I got there and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is an ambush.’ The pastors who are fighting the spread of homosexuality were all sitting there, not smiling. They pulled out the e-mail and said, ‘We know that you are a homosexual.’ I was terrified because I’d watched them hold up Bibles and say, ‘This book says these people must be killed.’ I was silent,” Williams says, then pauses, simulating a moment that must have felt like it lasted an hour. ” ‘But, Roger, we’re going to help you, we’re going to cure you.’ They then just started praying over me.”
The real fear Williams felt for his life at that moment is easy to understand once you see God Loves Uganda, which shows these same pastors whipping crowds into such a frenzy that the parallels to Rwanda in the 1990s are not without merit. In sharp contrast to the all-consuming hatred of Ugandan pastors are the bright-faced American missionaries, whose journey to Uganda is a large part of the documentary. Williams admits the young American missionaries were not at all what he was expecting.
“You read all these news stories about missionaries of hate, but on the ground it’s not exactly like that. They may be naive about the culture they are going into, but these are well-meaning and nice kids. I became friends with many of them. This was a challenge for me as a gay man, because I had demonized them as much as they had demonized me — but as we got to know each other, the walls came down and we became friends.”
What was interesting to Williams is how unaware these young missionaries were of the violent hatred their evangelizing was helping to fuel. For some, this realization only came when Williams screened the finished film for them. “One of the characters in my film, Jesse, after he saw the film just said, ‘Wow.’ He hadn’t thought about it, so when he saw [the persecution of gays] in the context of the film it made him more sensitive to the plight of homosexuals in Uganda.“
Williams believes his film can open the eyes of other people of faith. “When Americans see this, no matter how fundamentalist they are, something clicks. They don’t want anyone harmed, imprisoned, beaten or murdered in the name of the Bible.” Adds Goldman, “People are putting money in the collection plate without thinking about it. We want them to demand it doesn’t go toward these campaigns of hate.”
This is part of the dialogue Goldman and Williams are gearing up for as the film travels throughout the U.S. this winter. After God Loves Uganda finishes its theatrical release through major American cities, the filmmakers are excited to bring the film to religious communities, over 400 of which have requested a screening.
When asked what it would mean if his tour made a pit stop in Hollywood in early March should the film get a nomination, Williams gets emotional. “For me it would mean vindication. Especially after what happened to me last time. And now I have a producer who is phenomenal.”
Adds Goldman, “I would love nothing more than to stand next to Roger and not say a word.”
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