Stranger Than Fiction

Savior Complex Gives Controversial Voice to Evangelical Missionary Accused of Child Deaths

In a new HBO docuseries, Renee Bach claims God sent her to Uganda to care for malnourished children. Advocates for those children say we shouldn’t listen to her.
a scene from savior complex
Marshall Foster/HBO.

Soon after its trailer was released, Savior Complex started eliciting a strong negative reaction. The HBO docuseries is about Renee Bach, a white evangelical missionary with no medical background who founded a medical nonprofit for children in Uganda, then left the country as questions were raised about children who died while in her center’s care. Social media responses to the show’s announcement asked why Bach should receive a platform, and an advocacy group featured prominently in the series has already denounced it. “I think that some of the complaints will go away after they see the series,” director Jackie Jesko says in response to the controversy. But the group “will probably have things they’re unhappy with, and you can’t please everyone all the time.”

As an investigative journalist who’s done a lot of her work overseas, Jesko was shocked to learn about Bach from an NPR story called “American With No Medical Training Ran Center for Malnourished Ugandan Kids. 105 Died.” The article details how Bach, a homeschooled Baptist from Virginia, was allegedly handling important medical tasks at Serving His Children (SHC), a nonprofit she founded at age 19 and ran in Uganda.

After a former volunteer grew concerned and later contacted officials, the clinic was eventually shuttered; afterward, two mothers of children who died after they were treated at SHC filed a civil suit against Bach. As news of the lawsuit and allegations against Bach spread, bolstered by influential advocacy group No White Saviors, Bach left Uganda for her family’s farm in the US and has never returned.

She has also never faced charges, either in the US or Uganda—even though Uganda’s rules and regulations regarding what types of medical care can only be performed by doctors are similar to those in the US. “She was living back here in the US, not facing any criminal charges, just a civil case in Uganda. But it really wasn’t a very big news story, and there seemed to be a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle,” Jesko says.

The more she looked into the case, the more she realized that a documentary about it would have to cover more than the nuts and bolts of the allegations against Bach. So the filmmaker set out to explore the legacy of colonialism and Uganda, unpacking “harmful white savior narratives that too often shape the mindsets of missionaries and aid workers that we’re sending out,” as “when those two worldviews collide, there can be really dangerous consequences.”

Bach has claimed that directives from a higher power prompted her to engage in medical procedures and make judgment calls she was neither trained or licensed to do. Religious groups are “sending young people overseas, and then sort of drumming into them this concept that whatever is happening in front of you is something God has placed in your path,” Jesko says. “And this is something that you are being called to help with.”

Much of that is illustrated in the series through interviews with Bach, her mother, and SHC volunteer Jackie Kramlich, a nurse who raised some of the first public concerns about the organization. Kramlich is also white. As Jesko points out, her status as a whistleblower illustrates the problematic racial dynamics of the missionary system. As a white volunteer, Kramlich might have felt empowered to speak out in a way that the Black Ugandan employees did not.

It’s arguably a dynamic that extends to the production of Savior Complex, Jesko admits. Though coexecutive producer Roger Ross Williams directed God Loves Uganda (which also depicts evangelical Christians’ efforts in the country), the Black documentarian was born and raised in the US. Jesko, who is white, says that as an American, especially a white one, “I’ve experienced firsthand the deference that you’ll get in some countries. Respect that is not earned, not deserved.”

To counteract that, the filmmakers tracked down and interviewed not just the Ugandan employees of SHC, but doctors from surrounding hospitals, parents of children treated at SHC, and Primah Kwagala, the attorney who represented the mothers in the civil suit against Bach. (That suit was settled in 2020 when each mother was paid approximately $9,500, with Bach and SHC not admitting liability.)

Also central to the narrative is No White Saviors. Jesko credits the primarily Instagram-based group, which was founded by Ugandan social worker Alaso Olivia Patience and white American Kelsey Nielsen, with making this an international story, and says that they do a “great job of bringing so much education and information about the white savior complex. You cannot take away from them that they made this story.”

But as the series continues, cracks begin to appear within the group, which Nielsen departed after a bitter dispute with Patience. (In a statement made to The Guardian, Nielsen said she regrets how she conducted herself during her time at the organization.) As Jesko dove deeper into the story, she realized the documentary couldn’t present No White Saviors as experts providing a perspective, as she believes they were “creating a narrative that is not as based in truth, but is a very extreme version of the truth.”

Earlier this month, No White Saviors published an Instagram post about Savior Complex, saying that the series “is about making money for HBO Max and Warner Brothers, rather than highlighting the disturbing ways white supremacy is engaged through white missionary groups that come to Africa.” According to Jesko, members of the group have not seen the series; the post appears to be based in part on the trailer for the film. Vanity Fair reached out to No White Saviors via email and social media for comment, but did not receive a response.

The three-part series premieres on HBO and Max on September 26, and Jesko is bracing for backlash from all sides: not just No White Saviors, but those frustrated by a property in which the alleged wrongdoer is the central figure, as well as those who think that a white American filmmaker is the wrong person to tell this story. There’s also the evangelical and missionary side of the nation, which will doubtlessly be unhappy with its depiction. “This is an extremely difficult story. Super controversial,” Jesko says. “We did an extremely thorough investigation into this. So if they take issue with aspects of that, then I can live with it.”

“A big part of my goal in making this was to draw attention to it in a way that I thought my fellow Americans could understand and learn from, when of course I’ve not lived the Ugandan perspective,” she continues. “But as a filmmaker, you just put your product out there. There’s a certain point where, of course, you cannot control what happens afterwards.”