Elevate Difference

Voices of Witness Africa

Voices of Witness Africa honors the truth and plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Anglicans in Africa, who have often been excommunicated by the Anglican Church. This is an admirable task for the producers of this film, since their target audience is Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of bishops which happens once every ten years. The producers must work not to overly offend the church bishops that they are trying to win over. However, this tension to represent various sides of the issue leaves the film with a sense of having been diluted to be palpable.

Producer/director Cynthia Black, an Episcopal priest herself, conceived of the thirty minute film after a successful response to the first Voices Of Witness film released in 2006, which featured LGBT Episcopalians from the Los Angeles area and was premiered during the General Episcopalian Convention in Columbus, Ohio. A short preview of Voices of Witness Africa was shown twice at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, supposedly to a standing-room-only audience.

Interviews range from LGBT people who are afraid to show their faces and sitting in shadow to retired Anglican Reverends who dare to openly support the cause—all offer an explosive and potentially deeply moving perspective. I saw pain in their eyes—pain from the persecution within their culture, their families, and yes, the church that they love. I kept waiting for the pain to be expressed. It never really was and, in that, the film itself doesn’t feel to match the bravery and courage of the individuals that it is featuring, who are in many cases risking life imprisonment and even death to tell their stories.

This movie feels like a tentative first step into the stormy waters of a growing advocacy for the Church to become more progressive or risk perpetuating the sense that it is living in the dark ages. You can feel in the people interviewed how their love for a God that is lovingly accepting of them and a church that represents that acceptance is what drives them to talk about it.

The film proceeds at a dizzying pace with a frenetic quality that makes it difficult to really be moved by the poignancy of what is being shared in only thirty minutes. More time for the stories to unfold of these fascinating, inspiring, and bright souls and more shots of the individuals in their daily lives would have enlivened the experience. The DVD includes a twenty-seven page study guide with suggested exercises for discussion groups and a full movie transcript—which seems excessive given the short length of the film itself.

Although this is undoubtedly a film made by Anglicans featuring Anglicans for Anglicans, this doesn’t mean that those of us who are not practicing Anglicans (or even Christians) won’t be touched by the experiences and perspectives of the film. Yet, we also may not feel as compelled by the desire to win over a church that has not kept its promises to listen to their suffering and persecuted parishioners. Instead we may wonder—isn’t it time to go beyond just an advocacy for “open listening” from the Church, and to demand sweeping change and progressive reformation that could pressure the political and judiciary systems to end the persecution of LGBT parishioners?

Written by: Jillian Vriend, November 3rd 2010