The Director of ‘Savior Complex’ on the Perils of ‘White Saviorism’

Renee Bach was 19 when she felt God calling her to move to Uganda, where in 2009 she founded a Christian mission to serve hungry children. Home-schooled in a Baptist family, she had always been taught that when God calls, you follow.

But by 2015, after more than 100 Ugandan children had died there under her care, a chorus of other calls had begun to sound amid a swirl of questions about why and who was responsible — calls for answers, calls for justice.

Those questions are a central focus of the three-part HBO documentary series “Savior Complex,” directed by Jackie Jesko, which premiered last week. As related in the series, Bach, who moved to Uganda from Virginia with a high school diploma and zero medical training, originally set up the nonprofit charity Serving His Children as a feeding program providing simple meals to malnourished kids.

The problems started when the charity began taking in severely ill children who could not find care at overcrowded hospitals, evolving ultimately into an unlicensed medical clinic with its own intensive care unit.

From 2010 to 2015, more than 900 severely malnourished children passed through Bach’s clinic, some receiving medical treatment Bach was not qualified to provide or oversee, according to reports. As news of the child deaths and Bach’s alleged practices trickled out, Ugandan activists, volunteers and lawyers began scrutinizing the operation and demanding redress and retribution. She was forced to return to the United States. (Bach disputes that she and the clinic are responsible for the children’s deaths.)

Part of what drew Jesko to Bach’s story, she said, was the opportunity to investigate what she called Bach’s “savior complex” — an attitude often described as “white saviorism,” the paternalistic belief, rooted in centuries of colonial history, that people of color are unable to help themselves.

“Renee and I grew up in the same generation,” Jesko said. “We were all exposed to that especially in movies. It’s just a pervasive thing in American culture that needs to be challenged.”

From 2010 to 2015, more than 900 Ugandan children passed through “Serving His Children,” according to reports. More than 100 died. Credit…HBO

Drawing on interviews with Bach and an array of critics and allies — including nurses, doctors, former employees and the victims’ families — “Savior Complex” feels at times like a courtroom hearing, with witnesses testifying to Bach’s guilt or innocence and leaving the audience to play jury. As the story unfolds, the same facts are dissected and transmuted into multiple and diverging accounts of what happened. The series appears to relish the ambiguities.

“She overstepped,” Abner Tagoola, head of pediatrics at Jinja Hospital, says in the documentary. “But the role of Renee as to the link to the mortality of these kids, as directly? I don’t think so. Because of the vulnerability of these children, there were a lot of mortalities that were inevitable.”

At the same time, documents, blog entries and archival footage obtained from inside Serving His Children are often damning; Bach appears to make diagnoses, administer tests and medications and question the opinions and decisions of the Black nurses and doctors on her staff.

What emerges is an untidy portrait of a woman who worked to save the lives of many Ugandan children but who was also so confident in her faith that she became blinded to earthly realities.

Bach has not been charged with any crimes in Uganda or the United States, but in 2019, she was sued in Ugandan civil court by Gimbo Zubeda, whose son Twalali died at the clinic, and by Kakai Annet, whose son Elijah also died after receiving treatment. Bach and her charity settled the suit in 2020, agreeing to pay about $9,500 to each of the mothers while avoiding an admission of liability.

In a video conversation last week, Jesko spoke about what drew her to Bach’s story and the dangers of blindly following “the call to help.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What was particularly interesting to you about Bach’s story?

As a director, I love stories where there’s ambiguity. Those are the most interesting stories to tell. People on the internet love stories that are black and white, it’s this or that. But everything has shades of gray. It’s through the messiness of this story that we’re able to look at the really big picture of colonialism and the legacy that’s left, the way that missionaries are able to operate in Uganda and the limits of activism, medical ethics, that kind of thing. I’ve spent a lot of my career reporting in other countries, and as a white American, I’ve experienced firsthand the deference that is often given to us in some of these places.

How did you get Bach to talk to you?

She had spoken to other outlets before this. Basically I just wanted to find out her side of the story. And I think she spoke for the same reason anybody does this kind of thing in a long-form documentary. She felt her version of the truth was not being represented, and she wanted the chance to present it to the world and maybe change some people’s minds.

“Renee and I grew up in the same generation,” the director, Jackie Jesko, said. The “savior complex,” she added, is “a pervasive thing in American culture that needs to be challenged.”Credit…Nick Capote

Much of the series includes footage from Serving His Children that shows Bach caring for the children during her time in Uganda. How did you acquire that footage?

It was a challenge. But it’s interesting: Basically the videographer in question is a supporter of Renee’s even still. It was a delicate situation, but he felt like a lot of what he captured was more exonerating of her.

Did you go to Uganda to interview people there?

Oh yeah. We as a team went four times and we also worked really closely with the Ugandan producers Paul Kabango and Derrick Kibisi. They did a lot of stuff without us as well, but we went several times.

Did your view of Renee change at all through the process of creating this?

I think with any story you go on a journey, and obviously I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about everyone in this story. There’s always days where you think one thing and think another, and you have to keep thinking through all these scenarios. I think what people will find unsatisfying about Renee’s arc is she doesn’t really come to any kind of reckoning with herself. There’s a small one at the end where she doubts her faith and the call to serve. But she’s almost operating outside this larger conversation about the role of missionaries in Uganda.

This series has been criticized by some people who say that Bach doesn’t deserve a platform like this. What do you make of that?

A lot of conclusions were drawn, a lot of assumptions were made. But that’s the risk of taking on a very controversial story that a lot of people already on social media have strong opinions about. In the last couple of days, since the show has come out, the conversation has shifted quite a bit. People who’ve actually watched the series are responding and saying it was a really complex story and layered, and that the larger context makes the story worth telling.

What are you hoping people take away from this story?

Renee is not an anomaly. The way she grew up and the way she was taught about serving overseas, that’s similar to the way thousands of other young missionaries are taught. In this series, you’re able to see step by step, through an individual story, how the call to help feels, how it works, what the conditioning is — and with Renee, how it transformed and escalated to the point where she is involved in medical work despite having no qualifications. And not only is she doing this stuff, she’s blogging about it, and the only feedback she’s getting from her audience and donors is praise. No one is questioning, Should you be doing this?

I think that reveals some interesting things about missionary work and then also the preconceived notions that a lot of Americans have about Uganda or Africa at large; they’re buying this narrative that the only person who could possibly do anything to help in this situation is this untrained teenager. I hope it will provoke people to think more deeply about the intersection of money and religion when it comes to foreign aid and power imbalances. And I hope that Ugandan viewers feel that the full diversity of their perspectives was respected and amplified.

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