Pleas from charities are so plentiful – whether via latenight TV ads or other avenues – that it’s sometimes easy to let them blend into the noise of our media diets. Yet two new documentaries challenge perceptions about how charitable endeavors can and should operate, and what’s required for them to succeed in their stated missions.
Those projects come at the issue from very different angles, with “Savior Complex,” a three-part HBO docuseries, presenting a nuanced portrait of the controversy surrounding American missionary Renee Bach and Serving His Children, an organization designed to assist malnourished children in Uganda.
By contrast, “Uncharitable,” an adaptation of Dan Pallotta’s book and TED talk, lays out the case for treating charitable institutions differently than they have been, removing arbitrary handcuffs and equipping them with the kind of resources, tolerance for risk and reasonable expectations that would enable them to attract topnotch talent and truly address the problems they were created to solve.
“Savior Complex” details how Bach launched her nonprofit group in 2009 at the age of 19. Bach, however, lacked medical training, and questions arose as to whether the practices employed at her clinic were actually harmful after several children died while in its care.
“I think she truly believed that she was more capable of treating these children than every other trained person, period,” says Jackie Kramlich, a Serving His Children volunteer turned whistle-blower during an interview in the docuseries, a point echoed by some local medical personnel.
Bach and her organization were named in a civil lawsuit in Uganda in 2019 for operating a medical facility without a license. In the documentary, Bach defends herself, saying nothing more could have been done for some of the kids. The video of her organization does present Bach downplaying the issue of qualifications, quoting her church in saying, “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.”
Adding to the complications surrounding the story, Bach became a target of a group called No White Saviors, which lobbied against Western charities essentially parachuting into Africa, running ads that said, “Black children are not props for your photo ops.”
Directed by Jackie Jesko, “Savior Complex” provides an evenhanded account of the allegations against Bach. It also frames the story within the origins of missionary and foreign-aid work, the colonial underpinnings of religion-based charities in parts of the world like Africa, and how even the best intentions can potentially go awry.
“Uncharitable,” meanwhile, is a work of clear activism, setting out to change “old, suffocating, obsolete ideas about giving,” as Pallotta puts it. Perhaps foremost, Pallotta and director Stephen Gyllenhaal press the argument that charitable institutions, like commercial enterprises, need to invest in order to make money, citing deeply entrenched Puritanical beliefs that charities should operate on meager budgets, making it difficult to attract the best people to run them.
The common bond between “Savior Complex” and “Uncharitable” lies in the fact that just having admirable objectives isn’t enough without a functional blueprint for how to achieve them. Each project has merits on its own, but viewed in tandem they illustrate that while raising money is where most charity begins, the complexity lies between the desire to help and turning that into tangible benefits.
“Savior Complex” premieres September 26 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max, which, like CNN, are units of Warner Bros. Discovery.
“Uncharitable” is playing in select theaters in New York and premieres in Los Angeles on September 29, with individual screenings across the US and Canada beginning in October.