Reviews — From the October 2013 issue

The Blazing Facts

Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

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Discussed in this essay:

Call Me Kuchu, directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. 87 minutes.

God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams. Full Credit Productions/Motto Pictures. 83 minutes.

I have on my computer an eleven-second video to which I often return when I think of Uganda. I made it during a reporting trip a few years ago. What I see first are clouds, heavy ropes of twisted gray in an ashen sky, soon to unravel into black sheets of rain. At the center of the frame is a makeshift stage on which a crowd of black men raise their hands above a kneeling knot of whites. It is an anointing. A stringed instrument drones, languid and hoarse. A Ugandan preacher growls: “ — this land! You will put a new fire in this life, may the new fire of travailin’, new fire of supplication, I call for the spirit of intercession — ” The video ends.

I know that the prayed-for fire is really a piece of legislation, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I know that the bill’s author, a member of Parliament named David Bahati, considers himself merciful, since although “serial offenders” receive the death penalty, having gay sex just once results only in life imprisonment. But I don’t watch the video to remember these facts. I watch it because it reminds me of what it felt like to be there, a guest of Bahati’s, to see through the eyes of a man who wants the state to erect a gallows to satisfy his holy imagination. The video fragment offers no solution; it doesn’t reveal cause. And yet it’s still more than I’ve fully grasped, which is why I keep watching.

I made this clip at a 2010 revival meeting led by an American pastor named Lou Engle. An increasingly influential fundamentalist leader in the United States, Engle made a poor showing in Kampala. He called Uganda “ground zero” in the spiritual war on homosexuality, but while it was true that the bill was so popular that ordinary Ugandans marched for it in the streets, Engle’s crowd numbered only around 1,300. American preachers can be big in Uganda like American bands used to be big in Japan, but Engle is a newcomer to the so-called Pearl of Africa. Still, among the crowd were filmmakers: Engle’s own crew, and cinematographers for what would become two oddly complementary documentaries about sex, law, and religion in Uganda, Call Me Kuchu and God Loves Uganda, both released to theaters this past spring.

Production photograph from Call Me Kuchu, courtesy the filmmakers.

Production photograph from Call Me Kuchu, courtesy the filmmakers.

Call Me Kuchu, named after a Ugandan term for queer and directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, features a small group of Ugandan LGBT activists as they attempt to live ordinary lives; God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams, has at its center a small group of American missionaries attempting to live what they mistake for extraordinary lives. Both documentaries are message films, meant to alarm American and European audiences, but they take very different approaches. Call Me Kuchu follows its subjects; God Loves Uganda directs its viewers. Call Me Kuchu becomes (spoiler alert) a martyr film, in the tradition of The Times of Harvey Milk and the fictionalized Milk, or Malcolm X, the documentary, and Malcolm X, the feature. God Loves Uganda is an exercise in comparison, bouncing back and forth between extremists being extreme and liberals being moderate. Both films — like me, opening this essay — use Lou Engle, a Johnny-come-lately to the fight, as an embodiment of hate.

I didn’t know about the documentary makers at the time, but I could see that Engle’s rally, crowded with international news crews, was camera bait. Bahati was not an orator. He seemed little interested in the stage, and cameras need spectacle. That’s what Engle was there for — to create clips for the folks back home, fund-raising gold, scenes of his team of white prayer warriors laying hands on dark-brown skin, blessings jolting in both directions. And we, the reporters and documentarians, we wanted the same, if for different purposes.

Glimpses of the rally flicker through Call Me Kuchu, a beautifully wrought film of visual intimacy and emotional subtlety, a documentary that reveals rather than instructs. Even the rally is evocative, not declarative: we see Engle rocking forward and backward from a pivot at his hips like a rabbi davening, a stentorian Ugandan in a dark suit — the minister of ethics at the time, James Nsaba Buturo — droning on against the gays. These passages are as much mood as data, used as counterpoint to the main subject of Call Me Kuchu, an activist named David Kato who introduces himself as the first out gay man in Uganda. The main subject of God Loves Uganda, meanwhile, is Engle’s church, the International House of Prayer (yes, IHOP; members relish the kitschy association), particularly the young missionaries it dispatches to Uganda, and the liberal clergymen — the traditionalists in this story — who oppose American evangelicals’ projection of their sexual anxieties overseas.

The documentaries each offer up Engle’s rally as a stand-in for the complexities of influence and corruption in the neocolonial relationship between Uganda and the United States. But Engle was simply making himself louder and more flamboyant than the Bahatis and the Buturos and their American allies. He’d played no role in the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, an initiative that has American roots that run deeper than these films can explore. Bahati began his career in 2004 in the United States, at Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute, a school of “political technology” for conservative activists. From there he went to the Cedars, headquarters of the Family, or the Fellowship, a deliberately low-profile movement dedicated to instituting “biblical” law. Back home in Uganda, Bahati rose through Parliament with the aid of the Fellowship’s weekly meetings for Ugandan politicians. Pastor Rick Warren, a man of moderate reputation in the United States who nonetheless equates same-sex marriage with incest, has been a guest of the group, as has Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who coined the phrase “the three Gs”: God, gays, and guns. Inhofe, who claims to have “adopted” Uganda, says he brings Africa the “political philosophy of Jesus,” as taught by the Fellowship. When I asked Bahati whether there was a connection between the Fellowship and the bill, he said, “There is no ‘connection.’ They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.” [*]

[*] I detailed this connection at length in the article “Straight Man’s Burden,” in the September 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The American branch of the Fellowship, initially reluctant to comment on the bill, ultimately condemned it even as they maintained relations with Bahati, who became a leader of the organization’s Ugandan branch. Some members of the American Fellowship pointed to the influence of a far cruder character, an American pastor named Scott Lively — featured in God Loves Uganda — who took his gay-bashing road show to Uganda shortly before Bahati introduced the bill.

It’s fair to fault these films for reducing the development of politicized homophobia in Uganda to a caricature in which the baddies are very foolish, and thus sure in the end to lose. They have not lost yet in Uganda, where the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, stalled for three years now by international pressure and domestic politics, remains only one articulation of a virulent homophobic fever.

And yet, to let such a critique obscure the very real power of these films would be to indict the documentary tradition itself, the “essence” of which, wrote the great documentary scholar William Stott, “is not information.” But what is it then?

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (W. W. Norton).

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