Guide to SKOPJE

Attempts to build ideal religious societies give rise to cruel extremism


Balkon3 interview with Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, author of documentary films “Music by Prudence” and “God loves Uganda” .roger-ross-williams_balkon3

If we try to divide the films we watch, many subgroups would emerge, but the main two groups would be films that left a deep emotional impression on us and those that were interesting but failed to engage us emotionally. The films of Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams fall into the first group – the ones that leave a strong emotional impression.

The first film of CNN’s former journalist is “Music by Prudence” which follows the life of 24-year-old Prudence from Zimbabwe. Prudence is a disabled girl who, despite the superstitions and rejection from society, along with several other abandoned children, thrives in life and finds comfort and success in music. This film was awarded the Academy Award in 2011. His next film, “God loves Uganda” presents a picture of the detrimental actions and influence of American churches and their missionaries in Africa. The ideal country and laws as envisioned by these missionaries failed in the United States due to strong freedom movements, but African countries, especially Uganda, are their utopias. As a result of their struggle against “sexual immorality” laws are carried out prohibiting sexual minorities, abortion, antifeminist laws and bans on the use of condoms. Thus the number of people with AIDS in this country is growing and activists and members of sexual minorities are lynched.roger_ross_nenad_balkon3

Roger Ross was Chairperson of the jury of Starigrad Paklenica Film Festival where we did this interview. The jury included musicians Vlatko Stefanovski and Magnifico. The festival, whose partner country was Macedonia this year, screened an array of Macedonian music documentaries during Macedonian Week programme. After the screening of the Macedonian documentary about Shutka Roma Rap band, produced by Balkon3 which aroused great interest among the audience with refined taste when it comes to music documentaries, we sat down for an interview with this always ready for a conversation gentleman:

How do you choose the topics for your documentaries? “Music by Prudence” and “God loves Uganda” are ostensibly simple topics, but emotionally deep and disturbing films.

This is due to the personalities that I identify with and I identify with outsiders. I, personally, feel like an outsider, like someone who has been rejected by society, just as Prudence, or the case of the film about Uganda, or as the women in the LGBT community. My next film deals with the experiences of an autistic child. I identify with outsiders and I choose topics that affect me as a person. “God loves Uganda” deals with a very personal issue because both my parents are priests. That is why I grew up in a church. They are people who reject anyone who they believe is a sinner. In their eyes, many are sinners. This subject was really personal. Prudence on the other hand, was a regular story of a person rejected by her family. I was rejected by my family and in some ways I identify with it. I find it interesting to watch the disabled fight their battle.

As a former journalist who has worked for most major news agencies, including CNN, what experiences from the world of news have you transferred into the world of documentary films?

What I transferred from journalism are facts so that the whole story is not based solely on emotion. So, facts and figures. A film is simply how one person views things. It’s about my point of view on things. Perhaps what I’m going to say comes from journalism, but I want to understand the other side. I want to understand a man who thinks very differently from me, and that is what is interesting for me. It is also interesting for me as a journalist. For example, if I were an Israeli journalist, I would already be in Gaza interviewing people, trying to present the story from the other side, from their perspective. That is the approach I have towards everything. Maybe that is what I took from journalism. What I did not take are corporate “mainstream” media. In a broad sense, in the United States of today there is no real journalism. This includes the “mainstream” media – TV networks or newspapers such as The New York Times. They all work in accordance with their corporate interests which means they exist to make money and appeal to their “Board”. In my opinion, real journalism happens in the world of documentary films.roger_ross5_balkon3

Why do you thing real journalism happens in documentary films?

The truth about what happens in the world is reflected in documentaries. Some of the films that were released recently, “Dirty Wars” for example, where they cover the use of American drones in wars, showing things that you do not see on “mainstream” media but you see them covered in depth and detail in the documentary. I’ll give you another example and this is the film “Invisible World” which deals with rape in the American army. The American military has abnormally high percentage or abnormally high statistics of rape cases. Proportion of women members of the American military have been abused and the number of such cases is huge. The military are covering up these cases and that is what makes it all so compelling. When it was announced that the film deals with this topic it triggered a series of hearings in Congress and a new law was passed. Both the military and the Government turned their heads away, but the film focused public’s attention to this problem in a way that real journalism is supposed to do.

Furthermore, my friend Laura Poitras went to Hong Kong and interviewed Edward Snowden and her film will be screened at the Toronto Film Festival this year. It will tell the story of Edward Snowden. Glenn Greenwald is a journalist who has followed the case for The Guardian. He and Laura made ​​the story and Laura shot the video of Snowden. They made the film and it will be a very interesting one, regarding it is about citizens’ privacy. The film is now edited in Berlin because they are constantly under pressure, particularly from the Immigration Bureau. When Laura came back to the United States she was held 7 or 8 hours at the border. The same has happened to Glenn Greenwald. He and his associate were arrested for carrying information in their bag. Changes, even changes in the laws of politics are taking place these days under the influence of documentary films.

You cooperated with renowned director and master of political satire Michael Moore in the making of “TV Nation“ series. What was it like working with Michael Moore?

Michael worked for two years on this series which proved to have set new standards in the field. These were political programmes that used satire and comedy in order to convey a major political statement. What we did was find an issue and process the situation in a creative way. We usually did unbelievably crazy things. What I learned from Michael while working together, was that comedy is a far more effective means of communicating things. You wouldn’t like to bore people with drab information. Michael helped me develop a keen sense of using comedy and satire in the same context. The series was a groundbreaking project. Its producers are now behind the most popular and most awarded documentaries in the United States.


“God loves Uganda” touches upon issues of influence that American missionaries have in rising corruption and extremism in Africa through their attempts to build an ideal religious society. What was the reaction to the film in the United States?

I got amazing reactions. I can’t say that it was the “mainstream” media. There was feedback from people such as John Stewart from “The Daily Show” who creates fictional comic news, parodies. In this way he successfully covers and deals with more serious issues than actual news agencies. He does this in a really innovative way and many young people get their update on the news through John Stewart. I gave a ton of interviews about this film, but mostly for media like The Huffington Post, Huffington Post Live, MSNBC which are a liberally oriented cable network. There was nobody from ABC covering the film, but I think that news and information about the film travel far and fast, and that is due to the power of documentary films. Documentaries are a place where people, mostly those from the United States, go to learn about various issues and events worldwide. On the other hand, hundreds of churches in the United States signed a request to show the film in their churches or at their seminars. The film toured 75 festivals, I myself was present at 30 of them. When it was aired on TV there were reactions from about a million viewers, twitter users, people gathered to see it in their homes. It was a phenomenal experience and I think the film helped to focus attention on what is happening in Africa. Since the film was close to Academy Award nomination it attracted ​​even more attention. The day before this interview I was contacted by the BBC for an interview, because the President of Uganda was in the United States for the Africa Leaders Summit where all African leaders were present to meet with Obama.

The main theme in the film is the devastating influence and actions of American priests and missionaries in African countries and societies which contribute to the increase of numbers of AIDS patients (because they preach against the use of protection). Violence against sexual minorities is used to cover up other problems

The President of Uganda is a dictator who has governed the country for years, but now his popularity is decreasing and there was a great probability that he would lose the elections. He needed something to make people vote for him. Therefore, he used the LGBT community as a scapegoat to get votes, because it made it look that he is opposing the Western world. It was a desperate political move but it turned out to be very good for him there, in Uganda. The victims of that politics are the people from the LGBT community since they were used as a political tool, and it triggered mass violence against a group of people. People feel they have an excuse to beat somebody because they are gay, lesbian or a transvestite. What is happening there is violence in the name of God. Uganda Government passed a law which prohibits sexual minorities and abortion. After that a huge rally was organized with hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the LGBT community. They celebrated the adoption of the law on the square where they had celebrated their independence from England. There they celebrated the independence and there they celebrated their victory over homosexuals. The President gave a speech, got support, and then the pursuit of members of LGBT groups or people who are suspected of being potential homosexuals started and they were beaten or killed.God-Loves-Uganda-still-2

Most often, they are used as targets so that other more important problems in the country are covered up.

It is easy to satanize these people because the LGBT community is perceived as powerless and they can easily turn people’s attention from real problems. That is what is happening in Uganda. The real issues are problems related to food, money, jobs and corruption. It is a country ridden with corruption, very similar to what is happening in the Balkans. This is the way of distracting people from corruption by encouraging them to torture or even kill other people. We are stealing money and other resources while you are doing something completely unimportant.

Have you ever been attacked or harassed because of the issues your films deal with?

Yes, it happens very often. Even conservative evangelists send me such messages. But, what surprises me is that I am not receiving such messages in the volume I expected they would come. I thought there would be tons and tons of emails with disturbing content, people protesting in front of my house etc. It is quite peaceful now. I get such emails occasionally. As for the themes of my films, Joanna Watson, the older missionary in film, recently mentioned that she is attracted to women and she said the film made her think about herself and their work in Africa. The film made her reconsider their role there. Even other missionaries have approached me to say that the film has encouraged them to reconsider ways of spreading their message. In a way, the film achieved the goal I was hoping to achieve.


What is the current situation in Uganda?

Uganda has a very strong community of activists that have just hindered the adoption of the law in court. The activists filed a lawsuit against the Parliament and the law was abolished in July. They are relentless in their fight which tells us there is hope for that country. They not only led a fight and won, but they also help other activists throughout Africa fight in the countries that adopted the same laws, such as Nigeria and a few other ones. It resembles a domino effect. At the end of my film you can see how missionaries are trained to go to places where white people can’t go. They go to countries like Ethiopia, they go to Muslim communities to convert them. Communities of missionaries are created who are committed to stay. They are Africans and are entitled to be there just as anyone else.

You are currently working on two projects “Traveling While Black“ that presents the difficulties African Americans had while travelling in the period before the civil rights movement appeared in the US, and a film about an autistic child „Life, Animated“. 

„Traveling While Black“ is a multimedia project that involves an exhibition, a game – the game gives you an opportunity to travel like a black person. You travel from point A to point B while there is the police stopping you and mobs trying to lynch you.

We are working on a lot of things at the same time, but “Life, Animated” is almost finalized. We are currently interviewing older musicians whose experiences will be merging with the experiences of young African Americans today. Nowadays, many have experienced the same problems as in the past. Next thing is the Government who says that basically there is no longer such thing as privacy. They can do whatever they want and not provide any justification for their actions.

How did you get the idea for “Life, Animated”?

I first heard about the story through the book that Suskind, the father of the child, wrote. It’s about his autistic son Owen who could not speak, but memorized dozens of Disney films and began to express his emotions of love, sadness, happiness and pain through the dialogues of the animated characters. His parents were forced to dress up like cartoon characters to be able to communicate with him through dialogues and songs from the films. For the purposes of the film “Disney” gave permission to use all of their films, and it is scheduled to be released in 2016.roger_ross11_balkon3

During Macedonian Week programme at Starigrad, Paklenica Film Festival you had the opportunity to see the documentary about Shutka Roma Rap band. What are your impressions?

I think this is exactly the type of documentary films that should be made in Macedonia. As I said earlier, the purpose of documentaries is to open your eyes, to inform you about something you did not know existed and I think the advantage of this documentary is its view of the world which is not accessible for most people. I think it is fascinating not only for the Macedonians, but for people like me from the United States. I think it is a wonderful film, amusing and funny, and it shows things that people are not aware they really exist. I think this film should be screened at festivals round the world and I’m sure people will love it.

When it comes to issues related to human rights, the rights of Roma people is a big issue around the world. In the United States there is a large charity which recently hired a prominent activist to promote the rights of Roma people. The organization received a high recognition for its activities related to this problem. Here we have a community that is so marginalized. Even in the United States Roma people are met with prejudice. We have seen many documentaries about marginalized communities, such as ghettos of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. It is very important that you make these films so that the talent of these people becomes evident and thus the whole world can enjoy their talent.

Nenad Georgievski