Being the bleeding heart and face of Save the Children tipped into the realm of the tyrannical for Sally Struthers, who starred in late-night television ads for the international aid organization for some three decades. She only found a sense of release when she performed as the evil orphanage warden Miss Hannigan in a touring production of Annie. “After all the years of stumping for the hungry and disenfranchised children on the planet, to play a woman who hates children is delicious,” the actor told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.
She was the avatar for the countless do-gooders – mostly white, mostly evangelical, mostly women – who continue to stream into foreign nations with the mission of tending to the poor and needy. Renee Bach took the Mother Teresa-ism to the extreme, moving to Uganda, where she established a food distribution center and health clinic where she herself, a homeschooled woman with no medical training, oversaw the medical treatment of more than 1,000 young children. Over the course of several years, hundreds of the residents at Serving His Children saw their way to improved health. And over a hundred died in her care. “It wasn’t really a huge news story,” Jackie Jesko, an investigative reporter who directed Savior Complex, a three-part series centering on Bach. “When I first read about her, I thought there were a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle.”
Her documentary has aroused controversy for presenting Bach’s story in what some see as an inadequately damning light. The miniseries toggles between interviews with Bach’s detractors, whose collective efforts led to the closure of her clinic, a civil lawsuit, and Bach’s humiliation and cancellation – and Bach’s own version of events. With a problematic take-charge blonde at its center, Savior Complex is something of the Elizabeth Holmes story with more blood on its hands.
Appearing in day-in-the-life footage and sitting for interviews, Bach describes how she ended up administering drug treatments and blood transfusions to infants and toddlers. She felt called by God to save lives. Her genuine desire to help suffering children comes across, as does her blinding naivete. Bach’s answers are imbued with a defensiveness and “sorry-not-sorry” attitude that should only stoke the social media firestorm. Sun-dappled scenes of Bach in Virginia, where she now lives with her adopted Ugandan children and horses, will not help matters.
“Commenters are calling her a genocidal maniac serial killer,” Jesko said. “Yeah, she doesn’t agree with that.” Jesko, who has not shown the film to Bach and is no longer in touch with her, said that she imagines that Bach thought that participating would be a way to clear her name. “She wanted the truth to come out. And I guess probably in the hopes that there’ll be some people in the audience who might see more nuance in the story.”
The series was executive produced by Roger Ross Williams, the Academy Award- winning director of God Loves Uganda, which focused on a wave of American evangelicals who showed up in Uganda to open Christian schools and advocate for an anti-homosexuality bill. “They were there for the cleansing of sin, as they called it – the sin of the evil of homosexuality,” said Williams, who is Black. With one of the youngest populations on the planet, Uganda has long been a popular destination for aid workers. “For me, this is the latest wave of colonialism,” he said of the story of Serving His Children. “I’m really interested in this subject of American evangelicals who go into Uganda and, you know, cause a wave of destruction. This is just one small chapter in a long, historic wave of American evangelicals going to Uganda.” A high rate of Aids infections among the Ugandan population continues to ensure that there are plenty of parentless children to attract volunteers.
“Renee is just one of many who have opened schools and hospitals in the form of aid to basically preach this sort of religious doctrine,” said Jesko. While her film fails to provide a story that ends with anything that feels like justice, it captures the ignorance and self-delusion that fueled Bach’s efforts. Now in her mid-30s, her speech peppered with pauses and an uptick, she repeatedly tells the camera that she is guilty of what amounts to technical errors. “I’ve not denied that being more involved in the medical side of serving these children than I should have, but the only reason I did that is to help save someone’s life,” she says in the film. “I did not kill children.”
“It is similar to what thousands of other young missionaries and also aid workers are taught about other nations and their capabilities,” said Jesko, who spent two years gathering the footage for her series. “Our goal and telling her backstory and understanding the progression is understanding the types of young Americans that are being sent overseas because they want to help and do good. And then in her case, we can see, step by step, how this call to help that she feels she genuinely felt transformed and then escalated to the point where she herself is involved in medical work despite having no qualifications.”
Bach’s downfall came in the form of Jackie Kramlich, a volunteer and registered nurse who reviewed records and discovered an alarming lack of medical professionals, as well as diagnoses and treatments that did not make sense to her. Many of the children died shortly after being put on IV feeding tubes, which led Kramlich to suspect that they were suffering refeeding syndrome, where their tiny bodies went into shock following a rapid change in nutrition. Kramlich’s letters to the board and to the media raised alarms, and led to the eventual closure of the clinic.
The local government was slow to respond, which wasn’t surprising, said Williams. Groups like Bach’s provide paying work to locals and they complement an overtaxed system. One of the more troubling moments of Savior Complex is when the infant mortality statistics from Bach’s center are stacked up next to those from a local hospital. The sets mirror one another, which helps explain Bach’s own warped arithmetic. She helped far more people than she harmed, is the way her math seems to go.
“I think it’s just too hard for her to admit that she could have been doing harm when she didn’t need to be,” said Jesko. “We certainly press her on every possible thing … I do not believe she’s getting any kind of free pass.”
Her film’s detractors will not take kindly to footage of Bach cuddling with her children in her bedroom, which looks like a designed-for-Instagram set with its white furniture and billowy curtains.
Williams maintains that anyone who watches closely will find the message right in front of them. “This is an ongoing problem in Africa. This is an ongoing problem in Uganda,” he said. “If you care about people and if you care at all about helping people, you would pay attention to the damage and devastation that these American evangelicals are causing. I’m not saying that they’re all bad, but white saviorism is a form of racism.”
“I hope the film doesn’t discourage people from wanting to help places that do in fact need it,” said Jesko. “But I hope that it encourages people to question their methods, and who they’re donating to.”
Savior Complex premieres on 26 September on HBO in the US with a UK date to be announced