God Loves Uganda Film Review

My Review Of God Loves Uganda

God Loves Uganda, a documentary by Roger Ross Williams, turns its lens onto a new kind of Western exploitation taking place in Africa. Spearheaded by American Evangelicals, the cultural exploitation is no less damaging or disturbing than the plundering of resources and people that has decimated Africa for centuries.  The film is about much more than what caused Uganda to be the first country to introduce anti-gay legislation into Parliament that makes homosexuality punishable by death, although it makes the link between America’s hate-filled religious right rhetoric and the spread of homophobia in the country. God Loves Uganda is really about the insidious way in which something as seemingly well-meaning as missionary work has chilling implications for a country still attempting to shake the shackles of Western exploitation. It also is a very probing look into the workings of a mega church.
The film introduces us to International House Of Prayer, a.k.a. IHOP, a religion-in-a-box mega church that would surely match the pancake franchise in its customer outreach. Led by Lou Engle, IHOP is the prototype of the modern-day Christian fundamentalist mega church—in one word, a corporation no different in its methods, resources, and structure than a Fortune 500 company, except in that its media machine would surely be the envy of any corporation. Jono Hall, IHOP’s Media Director, explains he has over 1,000 full-time staff, split into 80 departments; IHOP broadcasts 1 million video hours a month to a 117 nations. No activity goes undocumented on film; millions of dollars go into messaging alone.
What exactly is the message, you might ask? Couched in nebulous and euphemistic terms like “spreading the good news,” or “The Call” campaign (12 hour pray-a-thons to put an end to abortion, for example), the message goes far beyond a merely religious one. This is where the genius of God Loves Uganda really comes through: it reveals the blatantly jingoist language used by the missionaries themselves. The missionaries in Africa keep referring to themselves as an “army” and this kind of rather violence-connoting ethos is scarily illustrated in the scene where firebrand anti-gay preacher Martin Ssempa is literally rolling on the ground, punching the floor, as his disciples all scream, “No to Obama!” for his “pro-gay stance.” A young missionary describes her mission as “imparting a DNA of prayer and worship,” and like DNA, she explains, she wants to “replicate values.” In another equally hair-raising quote, the missionaries explain how the fact that Uganda is nation where 50% of the people are under 15 years old would allow them to “multiply ourselves.” Words like “strategy” and other rather militaristic language only serve to dispel the myth that there is anything particularly spiritual or elevated about IHOP’s goals. At best, this is pure jingoism and all God Loves Uganda does is point a camera at it, without any commentary.
The jingoism also expresses itself in the way the missionaries  hone in on specific communities. Engle calls Uganda, “a firepot of spiritual renewal and revival.” Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a priest and former Ugandan now residing in the U.S., who cannot return home because his research into the influence of the religious right there has made it dangerous for him to do so, calls it preying on vulnerable communities and enforcing values on them at the cost of receiving aid.  Kaoma explains how the mega churches seek out especially neglected communities, ones unreached by anyone else, and turn them into “dumping places for extreme ideas.” By building schools, orphanages, and hospitals, the American Evangelicals are becoming all-powerful in Uganda and reliance on their help makes any sort of dissent an impossibility. As Kaoma very poignantly states about the young missionaries, “All they know are the Biblical verses they have memorized, but people listen to them because they are white and American.” And even worse, extremist preachers like “the gay agenda is to make your children gay and destroy the world” Scott Lively, who as Kaoma points out, is literally a nobody in the US got an audience in Uganda’s Parliament where he was directly instrumental in urging PM David Bahati to introduce the anti-gay bill. The damage is done in other areas too. During the Clinton administration, HIV reduction was hugely successful; with the advent of Bush’s abstinence-only programs, HIV rates once again began to creep up. Abstinence-only programs were the only ones receiving funding so adhering to the religious right party line was the only choice Uganda had.
God Loves Uganda is a daring film and a look into what happens when religion is used to fan the flames of hatred and violence. There is no “good news” to be found in the message of IHOP and others of its ilk; one either goes along with their message of intolerance or one is heading towards sure damnation. It’s a highly ironic given that the West has plundered Africa to the point of making it hell on Earth.

The Production Of Value–What Happens When Banksy Roils The Art World’s Waters Yet Again

My Blog for Ministers Of Design

Last Sunday, a booth appeared in Central Park selling “signed, 100% original” Banksy pieces at $60 each. Banksy is currently “on residency in New York”; his work is popping up in his trademark spectacularly subversive fashion–a creepy stuffed animal “slaughterhouse delivery truck” in the Meat Packing District, for one.

Art collectors loudly bemoaned the fact that they missed the chance to acquire the much-coveted pieces that routinely fetch six figures at a ridiculously discounted price. And Banksy, as he is wont to do, got to make fun of the idea of what constitutes art and the pretentiousness of the “art market,” where value is conferred by exclusivity. Would we recognize art if it is not labeled as such? And what happens when graffiti, an art form that in its very execution flies in the face of concepts such as ownership and private space, gets a price tag and starts participating in the very machine it seeks to obviate?
Banksy might as well be one of the world’s most reluctant “successful gallery artists.” The Sunday Central Park stunt was a spectacle, a performance art piece like the many he has done before, and it flew in the face of the notion that exclusivity confers value. Sure, Banksy is now, willingly or inadvertently, in the business of selling rebellion. But that doesn’t mean that taking the “art world’s” money has caused him to sell out. Sunday’s stunt was Banksy’s thumbing his nose at the fact that we need art critics to tell us what art is and how much it is worth. Banksy has often made fun of the elitism, pretentiousness, and outright absurdity of the curating art and placing it in a museum. The art market, like any other capitalist cultural reproduction tool, works to equate ownership of art with culture and the mark of the “cultured,” as James Clifford explored in his seminal article On Collecting Art and Culture.
 According to the video from last Sunday, more than four hours passed before the first sale was made, to a customer who bargained to get two paintings for $60. Later, a woman from New Zealand bought two. Finally, a man from Chicago stopped and said, “I just need something for the walls” of his new place. He bought four. 8 paintings sold in total.
In other words, if it is not labeled as such, would we know a Banksy? Does knowing that it is a Banksy somehow raise the value of the art just because it is now branded and hence ownable and usable as an identifiable and identity-conferring status symbol? Does art’s subjectivity not mesh particularly well with its object-ivity? You tell us.

Seize The Seizures: My Mom’s Book


My Mom recently published a book entitled Seize The Seizures; I edited it. Below is an excerpt from my foreword to it; you can preview more of the book on Amazon.

             I have this recurring dream about my Mom–-we are in some unknown European city.  I rap on the door of a small flat. I hear shuffling sounds as she peers from behind a small opening in the door. She looks startled, like I have just awoken her out of some deep slumber and like the light hurts her eyes…she doesn’t say much, but her eyes look impossibly plaintive. “I wish you could be here more.” I wake up, crying. It’s just a dream, but this is what you feel like when someone you love is hurting. There is a lot of guilt, no matter what you do…and what you do is never enough.
People expect you to wear your grief in plain sight for all to see, as though the only way to express authentic pain is to cover yourself in ashes and wear sack cloth…as though there is something you are supposed to be doing. I am not sure how much doing is going on, but I do know a lot of feeling is. I don’t like telling people my Mom is sick because it makes what I feel is a very private thing public. To talk about it feels diminishing and banal. How can pain be banal?  I cannot tell you how many times people ask me how she is doing, almost waiting for me to respond “Fine,” so they can get on with the conversation. I sometimes don’t even bother telling them that she is very far from fine, so I just tell the truth.  She is hanging in there.  
What a lot of people won’t tell you, even though it is such a ubiquitous trope, is how hard it is to talk to someone in a coma. Imagine seeing your Mom lying in a bed, with all manner of tubes sticking out of her like some alien arthropod has nested atop, her body wracked by the spasmic echoes of seizures happening beneath the surface of her heavily sedated brain. I tried to talk to her, but the words were not really coming out. All I could do was look at her and hold her hand. I know you will understand that even coming to the hospital to see her like this was crushing.

This book is the story of a really good woman who had a lot of really bad things happen to her, yet she is sharing her story. It’s not a story about epilepsy but something a lot bigger than that. A guy in San Francisco once told me, “See you on the flipside, mama.” My Mom’s been on the flipside and she wants to tell you about it. To me, it’s the ultimate gift of a mother to her daughter and a testament to who my Mother is–-a brilliant writer and a firecracker of a woman (even by Bulgarian woman standards!), a spirit of immense strength, and a wicked sense of humor (I like to think I get that from her). I like to think, rather arrogantly, that only I could have edited this book because I get my Mom so well and am connected to her on some subconscious, supra and super-natural level. I feel like the translator of a language of two speakers, one that I hope will not be deemed endangered any time soon. Even the title of the book works on so two levels—I know she can explain it a little better to you… But seizing the seizures is about grasping them, taking a hold of them, hoping to understand them a little better in hopes that will cease to seize over her life.
What I find most authentic about it is that it is so refreshingly pathos-free. My Mom doesn’t want you, the reader, to go “Aww,” by the time you finish it. There is no overdramatization meant to pluck at your heart strings and appeal to the Oprah set–-my Mom really is far too fun and funny for those sort of shenanigans. She keeps it real, I am sure you will see. And yes, there is a lot of sad too. Ultimately, the book is a strange little microcosm of what seizures are–-electrical storms–-it roils and stirs and moves and severs and connects and fires and rattles…it unsettles and it calms…just like life.


A Geography Of Internet Popularity: Popular Sites On A World Map

My Blog Post for Ministers of Design

Researchers Mark Graham and Stefano De Stabbata, at the Oxford Internet Institute, mapped the most visited sites in different parts of the world. The map shows each nation’s most popular website, with size of the nations modified to reflect the number of Internet users there. Google’s domination is almost universal, reigning in North America, Europe, and parts of South Asia. Facebook, the world’s most popular site, is most popular in North Africa, parts of the Middle East, and the Pacific coast of South America. Yet, even in those countries, Google still retains the second spot. As De Stabbata and Graham explain, “Among the 50 countries that have Facebook listed as the most visited visited website, 36 of them have Google as the second most visited, and the remaining 14 countries list YouTube (currently owned by Google).”

Baidu domines China and some neighboring countries. Noteworthy, Yahoo is top in Japan and Taiwan, perhaps in part to its longstanding partnership with Japan’s SoftBank and its purchase of Wretch, the Taiwanese social media site, which Yahoo is shutting down at the end of this year.
Yandex, a search engine, is Russia’s most popular site.
The countries where Google is the most visited website account for half of the entire Internet population, with over one billion people. Thanks to the large Internet population of China and South Korea (more than half a billion users), Baidu is second in this rank, and Facebook, with 280 million users, places third.
DeStabbata and Graham suggest that “the territories carved out now will have important implications for which companies end up controlling how we communicate and access information for many years to come.”

Public To Politicians: End The War On Drugs

My Article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests.

According to the FBI 2012 Crime Report, of all drug arrests, an overwhelming 82.2 percent were for possession and not distribution. For marijuana alone, 88 percent of arrests were for possession. And as spokesmen of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition point out, more people were arrested for marijuana offenses alone last year than for all violent crimes combined. Increasingly in recent times, the futility and utter failure of the “war on drugs” has become all too apparent to the general public, but the shift might be sweeping through the policy-making community as well, where for far too long being anti-prohibition was nearly tantamount to political suicide and equated with being “soft on crime.”
On October 9th, at the National Press Club, Richard Branson of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island hosted a screening of Sundog Pictures’ Breaking The Taboo, followed by a discussion that also included A.T. Wall, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, and Naya Arbiter, of the Amity Foundation. “Breaking The Taboo”, akin to the documentary The House I Live In, also puts forth that the “war on drugs” has essentially been a very expensive (in human and economic costs) failure with a lot of unpredictable consequences worldwide. Where The House I Live In focused on the United States and examined what role industrialization, classism, and racism play in the entire picture, Breaking The Taboo takes a more global look at how the illicit drug trade has had a lot of collateral damage, with rampant corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, endangering democracy and civil society (for example, Afghanistan is now dangerously close to being a narco-state), stunting development, and threatening human rights. Both films argue that a move away from prohibition to control is desperately needed. Criminalizing users instead of helping them has been deleterious to communities.
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance spoke about what he perceives to be a shifting tide not only in public opinion but also in political will. “At DPA, we seek to 1. reduce the harm of drugs on communities and 2. reduce the harm of government policies (corruption, etc.). In a nutshell, we seek to reduce the role of criminalization as much as possible while still protecting public safety.” He is convinced that we are definitely at a “major tipping point” when it comes to legally regulating marijuana, for one. Not just past Presidents are now speaking out against the drug war (Bill Clinton, for example), but also current ones—like the Presidents of Uruguay and Guatemala. Nadelman continued: “We have spent 40 years and trillions of dollars and the new focus is coming up with pragmatic alternatives. Rand Paul recently called the drug war the new Jim Crow, so this sort of injustice is becoming a real rallying call.”
And while we are not at a tipping point, we are definitely at a turning point of public opinion on mass incarceration. “We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world, with 2.3 million people in jail. The public is finally understanding what this really means. My only big fear is we are so accustomed to such massive rates of incarceration that we would be happy even with a 10% decrease.”
When asked to comment on the state of affairs from the correctional point of view, A.T. Wall was optimistic in his assessment: “In my state, prosecuting people for simple possession is now almost relatively unheard of; the focus has shifted to other types of crime. And it has definitely been bipartisan. We have people coming forward from both sides of the political spectrum saying the same things.” He also commented on the fact that “we have to work very hard to keep drugs out of prison,” which is why the focus on the demand side makes it imperative that prisons provide treatment and support and not just punishment.
Which brings us to another huge piece of this quagmire—in a sense, the arrest record that follows is the most dangerous thing about drug use and not the drug use itself, many would argue. The record prevents people from reintegrating into society (for example, affecting a multitude of economic aspects of a person’s life, such as voting, securing housing loans, and jobs), and thus hugely increases recidivism rates. Naya Arbiter, who works on the frontlines of support for former drug users, commented, “instead of criminalizing people and dismissing them as ‘bad apples,’ we should really see how we are building bad barrels all the time. We need to address issues of inequality, racism, lack of opportunity, and the social conditions that lead to drug use simultaneously with addressing the issues of the war on drugs.” Ms. Arbiter is convinced that foster care is almost exclusively driven by the war on drugs. For every 200 incarcerated men, there are 700 children that are affected as a result. “We need to focus on a drug policy that has collateral benefits for a lot of people and not just the white middle class. We need to make the transition from corrections to human services.” Richard Branson brought up the example of Portugal, which has stopped prosecuting drug users, as having registered major drops in heroin use as well as Hepatitis C and HIV infection rates.
The ultimate question is when will the actual policies and laws on the books change to reflect the growing discontent with the war on drugs? Undoubtedly, this question has been gaining some political attention as well—at the most recent Summit Of The Americas, it was firmly on the agenda. The “war on drugs” no longer carries the political cache it did during the “Just Say No” days. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse commented, “Currently, there is an incarceration reduction bill that is making its way through the Judiciary Committee, which will deal with pre-sentencing, sentencing, and treatment in prison. We are also working on a recovery bill that will provide support and recovery assistance.” While the tide is undoubtedly shifting in public attitude toward drug use, the crux of the issue remains decriminalization versus legalization. While legalization seems to require the kind of open-mindedness that seems not present at the moment, a consensus now holds that criminalizing simple drug possession and feeding the prison-industrial complex is untenable. As “Breaking the Taboo” points out, “you can’t wage a war on drugs without waging a war on people.”

BYT Fall Movie Guide

Contribution to the BYT Fall Movie Guide:

Spark: A Burning Man Story (VOD-theatrical release TBD) – This documentary by Steve Brown rekindles the bright-eyed dreamer ethos that we want to believe is what the giant festival in the desert is all about. In recent years, Burning Man has been much maligned for its seeming descent into the dreaded c-word (commercialization) and for no longer being the counter-cultural celebration of a Mad Max-like dystopia it once was. Spark will make a believer out of you; a celebration of the artists who toil assiduously at making the giant sculptures that end up destroyed in a pyre of glory, it is a true roots revival of what Burning Man is still really about.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (November 1) – If you don’t know who Slavoj Zizek is, well, he is probably the coolest academician around at present, even if you won’t find him giving TED Talks. The irreverent and brilliant Czech philosopher/ideology-unraveler follows up The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema with yet another thoroughly engrossing and entertaining film (and don’t call this a documentary…it’s a one-man show). Joining forces with filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, it runs like a cultural studies student’s wet dream, a parsing out of ideology in the most gloriously hilarious way.