By: Sarah Lehr
Ten days after Paige Ruane ’94 met Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, she wound up with him on a plane to Uganda. Ruane had experience in Uganda dealing with the intellectual property rights of healers, and she expressed interest in working with Williams on a documentary about the country. Ruane remembered admitting her lack of filmmaking experience to Williams and she remembered his reply: “It isn’t rocket science. I’ll help you and I’ll teach you.”
God Loves Uganda, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, made its Kenyon debut to a sparse but engaged audience last Tuesday evening. A Q&A with Ruane, who served as the film’s associate producer, followed the screening.
As a Kenyon student and history major, Ruane never thought she would end up making movies. But the narrative aspect of history always appealed to her. “I wasn’t really retaining any facts or timelines. But I would be moved by a story that a professor would tell,” she said. “So I guess that’s why I became interested in documentary film, which is the telling of true stories.
God Loves Uganda tells the story of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill” by its critics, the legislation aims to broaden the penalties for those seen as LGBT or as LGBT sympathizers. The bill includes the death penalty for a range of offenders, including those who “commit” homosexual acts multiple times or while infected with HIV. Although antigay attituds have brewed in Uganda for decades, God Loves Uganda contends that conservative Evangelicals from the U.S. have exacerbated anti-gay sentiments. “The majority of Ugandans are against homosexuality,” said Ruane. “But, the way that the hatred has been stirred up has been a product of the outside.”
Williams, who was born in Easton, Pa. to a religious family, said in his director’s statement, “In the wellknown trope about Africa, a white man journeys into the heart of darkness and finds the mystery of Africa and its unknowable otherness. I, a black man, made that journey and found America.”
As an associate producer, Ruane did everything from directing shoots, to contacting experts, to quieting a Great Dane during an interview. She admitted to feeling scared at times when working on the project. “It was dicey,” she said, “It was intense. We had this house that we were staying at with crazy guard dogs and barbed wire and they were barking all night. It felt like Hell.”
Ruane dined at the home of a Ugandan preacher, along with Director Roger Ross Williams. Ruane remembered how their hosts confronted Williams, who is gay, and said, “We love the sinner. We hate the sin.” Williams responded by mentioning his marriage, since he did, in fact, marry a woman for a green card.
“We were afraid that he would be outed,” Ruane said of Williams. “But he’s kind of a well-known director and if something happened to him there would be hell to pay.”
Many members of the Ugandan LGBT community do not enjoy the same assurance. The film included an interview with Ugandan and antigay activist David Kato and later showed footage of Kato’s funeral after he was bludgeoned to death. Before his death, Rolling Stone, a Ugandan publication known for plastering its front page with the faces, names and addresses of supposed homosexuals, featured Kato. Ruane recalled speaking with the director of Rolling Stone as part of an interview which never made it into the film. “He had no remorse and he was laughing at the fact that this guy was probably in hell because he was a practicing homosexual,” she said. “That was a pretty startling interview and we had to keep our poise.”
Ruane and Williams were further startled after interviewing a Ugandan anti-gay preacher. “He was so impassioned,” she recalled. “He believed so much in what he was saying [that] there was a moment afterward when Roger and I said, ‘My God, we kind of want to give him money. What’s the matter with us?”
Over the course of filming, Ruane empathized with unlikely characters. “I started to listen and to understand the shades of grey within people, I started to feel compassion for these [anti-gay] people who I thought I could barely sit with,” she said. “I started to understand this as a problem of trauma. I think that the bedrock of a church that doesn’t acknowledge shades of grey provides something for people in the U.S. and wherever when they are lost.” The film, according to Ruane, walks a line between taking a strong stance against human rights abuses and not alienating its potential audience. “If you really want to make change, how do you do that?” she said. “You can’t do it by making people defensive.”
Ruane described how an American conservative religious group asked to discuss God Loves Uganda with its creators at Sundance. “We weren’t expecting this. Sundance is super liberal,” she said. ‘“In the end, it went really well. Someone stood up and said, ‘My son is gay and there isn’t a lot of support for him in our community and I’m working towards creating [support].”’