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Knight at the Movies: God Loves Uganda; Big Joy
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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After making the festival rounds last year and winning kudos from critics and audiences, two tremendous queer-themed documentaries are reaching Chicago audiences this week: God Loves Uganda via broadcast on PBS Monday, May 19 ( and DVD release the same day ), and Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton via a theatrical run at Facets Cinematheque beginning Friday, May 16.

Thematically, the movies couldn't be more different—a searing indictment of the U.S. fundamentalist movement's role in Uganda's anti-gay policies and a spritely portrait of one of the gay founding fathers of the San Francisco avant garde, respectively. However, both are superb additions to the queer movie canon and not to be missed cinema experiences.

Openly gay African-American documentarian Roger Ross Williams ( an Oscar winner for his documentary short Music By Prudence ) starts his searing film God Loves Uganda with a focus on a group of young missionaries trained by the Kansas City, Missouri-based International House of Prayer ( known by its acronym IHOP, which has no relation to the restaurant franchise ). IHOP is just one of the many large fundamentalist groups in the United States that's found Uganda perfect for its brand of radical conservatism. In a country where 50 percent of the people are under 15, the promise of all that soul-saving must be irresistible.

Williams follows this latest crop of missionaries—white, young, arrogant and sanctimonious—as the group heads to Uganda, determined and unaware of the consequences of using the Bible to justify homophobia in a foreign culture, and seemingly unconcerned by it. These sections of the film have a WTF, Book of Mormon feel, especially in a sequence that shows the young evangelicals upon arrival in Uganda. Stuck in a van in traffic, they are beset by food-sellers intent on selling their wares—vendors who don't seem to understand the missionaries' equally persistent attempts to convert them. The disconnect between the two cultures is apparent, and is pointed out again and again as Williams explores the intersection of politics and the radical Christian agenda that have converged in Uganda.

The sunny optimism and iron-willed insistence of these young religious terrorists and their leaders are matched by the zealousness of their Ugandan counterparts—several prominent pastors such as Martin Ssempa, the infamous "eat the poo-poo pastor" who whips up his massive congregation using S&M porn as an example of the "gay lifestyle." These pastors—whose embrace of the anti-gay conservative agenda pushed by U.S. fundamentalists like Scott Lively and Lou Engle—have become powerful and wealthy.

Williams smartly allows everyone—from the soon-to-be-brutally slain Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato to the egotistical pastors and the missionaries—to speak for himself or herself. Because of that, the interviews ( and hidden-camera footage ) expose unfettered and jaw-dropping ignorance, greed and an unbridled lust for control—all of which outweigh any good intentions these Bible thumpers might espouse. The film also traces how this systematic approach, with U.S. money funding ( and often training ) these Ugandan religious powerbrokers, led directly to the country's infamous anti-gay law that was enacted in February.

The outrages pile up but, thankfully, Williams also found a voice to help balance the rabid anti-gay sentiment. That would be the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, a former resident of Zaire forced to flee Uganda in 2009 for his pro-LGBT views. Kaoma, who is straight and lives in Massachusetts with his family, is a gentle but urgent voice of reason who emerges as a real hero for the LGBT community.

God Loves Uganda is a vitally important film that hopefully will also serve as a reminder to the U.S. LGBTQ movement that complacency about our hard-won freedoms is far from being a global thing. Far from it.

At the other end of the documentary spectrum, subject-wise, is the delightful and light-as-a-feather Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, from co-directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade. Broughton, a seminal figure in experimental film and poetry ( he is aptly described as a founding father of San Francisco's postwar artistic movement ) was also a renowned sexual free spirit.

Broughton's creative life was fueled by his personal one: a life that included affairs with men and women, and included an early relationship with Pauline Kael ( which produced a daughter ). Kael, who is heard in a taped interview, went on to become this country's most respected film critic and introduced him to Kermit Sheets, with whom Broughton had his first serious male relationship. A marriage to dancer Suzanna Hart ( with whom he fathered two children ) followed. That relationship ended when Broughton fell in love ( and lust ) at 61 with Joel Singer, one of his filmmaking students who was 35 years his junior. Broughton and Singer remained together until Broughton's death in 1999 and their love affair is tellingly described by Singer. ( Hart's memories, not surprisingly, are not quite so sunny about the end of her marriage. )

Broughton defiantly followed his "follow your own weird" maxim after escaping from a well-born but restrictive upbringing, and this refusal to set boundaries on himself or others seems to have been the most consistent aspect of his life. Embodying the true hippie spirit ( long before such a concept existed ) Broughton's pixilated approach to life, based on the evidence, seems to have indeed brought he and others, "big joy" ( though there are hints here and there that Broughton's sunny outlook had its darker aspects ).

The filmmakers include bits from Broughton's movies ( 1967's The Bed is a lovely highlight ); excerpts from vintage interviews, lectures and poetry readings with him; and current interviews with Hart, Singer and several of Broughton's contemporaries, Armistead Maupin among them. The movie is as spritely put together as its subject—another winning aspect of this charming look at the life of a free spirit whose life and work are an important part of queer history. As noted, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is having its Chicago premiere run at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., beginning Friday, May 16.

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