The first (of many) misgivings I felt as a viewer of God Loves Uganda, Roger Ross Williams’s documentary that took the Full Frame Inspiration award at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was when a group of young missionaries at the International House of Prayer (yes, they use the acronym IHOP), about to embark on a trip to the “pearl of Africa,” huddle in a strategy session to try to define their mission. They want to reach “orphans.” Success, one participant opines, will be “walking away” and seeing some orphans able to pray.
Unless, of course, that orphan happens to be gay.
In that case success for the evangelical churches and missionaries focusing on Uganda includes (or at the very least allows for) support of legislative attempts by the country’s parliament to make homosexuality a capital offense.
There was a fair amount of discussion at the festival among my circle of critic friends about whether the film was a hatchet job on the American missionaries or simply gave them ample rope with which to hang themselves. I tend to lean toward the latter, if for no other reason than that the more disturbing statements to me, like the one above, were not so much the direct expressions of homophobia or intolerance but the casual asides that were more revealing than the interviewees perhaps knew.
Dogmatic people tend to be un-self conscious and, hence, often not very self aware. An accusation is made by one observer later in the film that for many of the missionaries, particularly younger ones, the trip to Uganda is more of an adventure–Jesus Camp takes a field trip–and less of an evangelical attempt to share the gospel (also known as the “good news”) much less their own lives. I have no doubt that every missionary in the film would deny this charge. Some more or less do so indirectly, but I kept thinking back to the implications that whatever encounter they had with Africa–and there is a disturbing quality of abstraction in the way they talk about “orphans,” or “Uganda,” as though it is possible to evangelize macro-socially without having to actually enter into an individual human relationship with actual human beings–has been conceptualized as one where the goal is to be able to “walk away,” to leave one’s imprint, one’s spiritual DNA behind, while not actually having to be present one second longer than is absolutely necessary.
Compare that attitude to that of Rocky Braat, the subject of Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother. Rocky sought a postgraduate adventure by visiting India, but his heart and soul were touched by orphans infected with HIV. He cuts the tourist part of his journey to spend more time with them, and then sells all he owns and moves to India to live with them permanently. “I can’t take any of them out of that situation, but I can put myself into it,” Rocky says of his reasons for wanting to not just visit, but live. “I found my purpose.”
One of the more striking contrasts between Rocky’s mission and IHOP’s is that his orphans have names. When director and friend Steve Hoover visits Rocky, he introduces his family of choice individually. Even the still photographs from the films are strikingly different; one has a white missionary laying hands on a nameless Ugandan. The other shows an HIV infected child touching, playing with, and looking into the eyes of his American “brother.” In one the orphan stares into the camera with an ambiguous glare; in the other, a child smiles at his surrogate family.
If I know the most conservative sliver of American evangelicalism well enough, and I think I do, I suspect some of them won’t like Blood Brother for all that. Rocky just doesn’t talk about Jesus enough. He spends more time tending to the needs of the orphans than ensuring the security of their eternal souls. I asked Steve Hoover how much, if any, of Rocky’s choices were religiously motivated and whether or not it was a conscious choice to play those down for the film. He said that it was an intuitive rather than a calculated decision to include the amount of Rocky’s faith that he did and that it “felt” like the right amount. Hoover opined that the central driving force in Rocky’s choice was a desire for “authenticity” and that he thought the film reflected that accurately.
Paradoxically, if there are some who may be unhappy that that the film doesn’t proselytize, I suspect there will be others who sneer because it may not be cynical enough for their taste. Early in the film Hoover confesses that there is a “part of me” of that “hoped Rocky wouldn’t make it in India.” There is a tension created by the film as we have to wrestle with our own cynicism about people who make grand sacrifices, their reasons for making them, and the ways in which others tell their stories. I suspect there will be some viewers who will be irritated at Hoover’s film for neither confirming nor rebutting that part of themselves that shares his early desire that Rocky can’t make it work. But–and I says this with all sincerity–if the film had the name Werner Herzog on the credits instead of Steve Hoover, that very quality (the refusal to decide for us, the willingness to allow questions or uncertainties to live in the narrative rather than to be driven from it) would be exactly what was championed in and praised about the film.
Hoover said in our interview that he thought most people are not “set up” like Rocky and “I don’t want people to feel guilty” after watching the film. “I want people to be inspired and figure out what they want to do.”
That attitude is another way that the mindset permeating Blood Brother contrasts with that of the missionaries in God Loves Uganda. I suspect that many (most? all?) of the missionaries in the latter film, if asked, would hope that the people they inspire would be inspired to do the same work they are doing. In the end, there is a difference between exporting God’s love and exporting your own theology. The IHOP missionaries wanted to give orphans Jesus. Rocky Braat just wanted to give orphans himself. Ironically, in doing the latter, perhaps he succeeded better than 99% of us at doing the former.