Alison Stewart: This is All Of It. I'm Alison Stewart, live from the WNYC Studios in Soho. Thanks for sharing part of your day with us. On the show tomorrow, Sterlin Harjo, the creator of Reservation Dogs, the critically acclaimed streaming series. It's in its final season. We'll have a conversation about that. Also, tomorrow we're going to try out a new series on the show where actors come on and don't talk about themselves or their work. Instead, we'll discuss a cause they support.
We've nicknamed it, Enough About Me. Joining us will be Michael Imperioli, Christopher, also really good on White Lotus to discuss how he's supporting Ukraine. Martha Plimpton will share how she's helping in the fight for reproductive rights. That is tomorrow on the show, but right now, a new documentary about a controversial topic, White missionaries in Africa.
A bubbly, blonde, 19-year-old homeschooled evangelical Virginia woman goes to Uganda and starts an organization called Serving His Children, dedicated to feeding malnourished kids. She says God has chosen her for this work. While there, she does more than provide food for children. She began to make healthcare decisions despite no formal training. Now, depending on who you talk to, missionary Renee Bach is either a hero or a villain, responsible for the deaths of more than 100 Ugandan children.
A new HBO Max three-part docuseries walks viewers through what happened. Leveraging her power and influence as a White American with backing from US donors, Bach opened a clinic after she says sick children began appearing at her location. At least 105 children who died while at Serving His Children and the mothers of two dead children joined together to sue Bach and the organization in Ugandan's civil court. Bach opted to settle the case without admitting to liability.
We get to hear from all sides of this case, including from Renee Bach herself. The new HBO Max Docuseries is called Savior Complex. The first part airs tonight on HBO. We're joined by Net's Director Jackie Jesko, who began her career at Nightline, has gone on to be part of the Dupont and Murrow Award-winning teams at VICE News. Jackie, it's so nice to have you with us.
Jackie Jesko: Thank you so much, Alison. I'm pumped to be here.
Alison Stewart: Before we even talk about what's in your series, I want to do what we call throw the skunk on the table among my friends. There was a backlash online just at the trailer and the promotional artwork which shows Renee Bach in sort of a sunbeam. That image is actually from promotional work for her organization and the tagline that says called by God, then called a killer.
I'm going to get to the gist of a lot of the online comments. I'm quoting here. "This woman should be in jail, not given a platform to talk about her crimes." What is to be gained from hearing Renee Bach tell her side of what happened?
Jackie Jesko: Look, addressing the controversy, I definitely understand why it's controversial. It's controversial because the story involves a lot of painful topics and this one has no real closure in the sense, Renee has never had any criminal action brought against her. The feeling that we're doing a documentary that includes her perspective, that that's somehow discounting the allegations made against her is simply not the case. Those allegations are the focus of the series and I believe we did a very thorough job documenting them and getting answers.
To answer the question that you asked, there are a million ways to tell a story, a million ways to tell this story. We could have had a lot of PhD talking head type analyzing it in a more academic way. I think digging deeply into the actual humans involved, showing instead of telling allows the audience to go on the journey themselves. In this journey, what you learn is the conditioning that a lot of evangelical missionaries are exposed to, not just Renee. She's not really an anomaly in that way.
We're able to show step by step the call she felt and how that transformed as her behavior escalated to the point where she herself is involved in medical work despite having no qualifications. I think understanding that progression reveals quite a bit.
Alison Stewart: I want to point out, I've watched all three hours. It is three hours, so it is thorough. To be clear, Renee Bach, was she compensated in any way for agreeing to sit for any of these interviews?
Jackie Jesko: Absolutely not.
Alison Stewart: How long did it take you to make this series?
Jackie Jesko: Three years.
Alison Stewart: Three years.
Jackie Jesko: Three years.
Alison Stewart: How much travel? Where did you go? Who did you-- Yes, let's start with where you went.
Jackie Jesko: Overall, I mean, as our whole team, it was three trips to Uganda and then of course, all over the US to talk to the American characters. Initially, HBO greenlit this as a feature and that's part of why it took so long for the series to come to fruition. That's a different format than a series. Pretty early on in the journey, I would say about six to nine months in, we really start digging in and we're like, "There's absolutely no way this will all fit in 90 minutes, not if we want to get at the bigger themes here, which I think are some of the most compelling things about this story." That was also a big part of the length.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Director Jackie Jesko. Director of Savior Complex. Part One airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 PM. How did you get Renee Bach and her family to participate?
Jackie Jesko: I mean, I think that Renee did this for the same reason that anyone who's at the center of a controversy or accused of a crime does a documentary, which is, I think the format itself lends to a more nuanced understanding of a story. By telling her own story, I believe she hoped that her version of events would change some people's opinions about her and counter the narrative that is put out there by social media activists. Of course, No White Saviors, most notably, who are also in the film.
Alison Stewart: When it came to the Ugandan people in the film, were they willing to speak? Did it take convincing to have them sit down and talk to an American crew?
Jackie Jesko: Generally not. Also, we had two Ugandan producers who we relied on really heavily, Derek and Paul, who really guided us on the ground. We typically didn't have the first conversation with them. They usually had first contact, but actually, it was harder to get some of the American characters on board.
Alison Stewart: Historically, how have missionaries in Uganda been viewed by the locals? Helpful? Harmful?
Jackie Jesko: Well, I mean, as we--
Alison Stewart: A source of work, it was part of it.
Jackie Jesko: As we dip into briefly in the series, missionaries have long been associated with things like hospitals and schools. They're often white people, they often have money, they often have resources. White people kind of get all painted with the same brush. When you have a White person come into a community, they assume that you're there to do good, that you have money, that you have resources. About those last two points, they're often correct.
I think when you add to that a bunch of really, really young missionaries who are conditioned to believe the name of the first episode, God doesn't call the qualified, He qualifies the call. Taking that idea of, "I should do this myself," to the extreme, it can be a really dangerous situation.
Alison Stewart: What did draw Renee Bach to Uganda?
Jackie Jesko: I mean, in her telling, it wasn't anything specific about Uganda. It was sort of an accident. She came across, I believe, it was an orphanage that was just accepting volunteers. You didn't have to have any special skills. Uganda certainly is a mecca for missionary work, in particular, Jinja. There's I think, a host of historical reasons for that, but I think mostly it's just a really comfortable place to live. It's really beautiful, it's really nice. There's a lot of other expats there. There's also a lot of need in eastern Uganda. It has everything, I guess, you'd want.
Alison Stewart: Initially, what was the work she was doing? How would you describe it?
Jackie Jesko: Initially, it started out very, very small. She goes into this community that's very impoverished outside of Jinja, and she's just offering kids free lunch. That's it. That shows the notice, let me go over this a bit in the series that a lot of these kids, they're not just hungry, they don't just need lunch. They have the medical condition, malnutrition. Through some contacts at the local hospital, she starts to realize that there's a need for this care that it's in between hospitalization and being at home.
She's like, "Oh, I'm going to step into that gap and help these kids in this middle zone." That also escalates over time and becomes increasingly medical.
Alison Stewart: What was she registered to do? What did she have registration for?
Jackie Jesko: Her personally or her organization?
Alison Stewart: Her organization.
Jackie Jesko: The organization, there was one year, 2014, where they were licensed as a medical center, but it opened in 2009, and from 2009, I guess, through 2013, they were licensed just basically as an NGO. I think they call them community-based organizations there, but it's the same idea where they were there to serve the community, so there wasn't a medical license there.
Alison Stewart: When you describe Renee believing she needed to step into this void between feeding children and hospitalization, what kind of things did she start to do?
Jackie Jesko: Well, I mean, that's up for a lot of debate. Depends on who you listen to. There's the charity at large started to-- Basically, what would happen was kids would go home after staying with her, and word would spread that there's this mzungu, it's Swahili word for white woman, who's offering all these free services because when you go to the hospital in Uganda, it's free technically, but you have to pay for food, for medical supplies, and a lot of people can afford to do that.
She was offering all these things for free. Word spreads. In communities where there are a lot of children who have malnutrition, they all know each other, and so they start to say, "Hey, go to this woman's house. Go to this woman's house, she will help you." I think what started to happen was that the hospital was being bypassed, and they were just going to her. Then she also was actively going out and trying to find these children at an earlier phase. The idea behind that was so that she could get them earlier in the process before it's too late.
Alison Stewart: When did she start to provide what I think can be described as medical care?
Jackie Jescko: The organization, pretty much from the beginning, they hired that one nurse, you meet Constance in the series. Jackie Kramlich, who is our whistleblower nurse character, she came in 2011. She says that she saw Renee do a host of medical things, things that were over her head as a registered nurse. That was 2011, about a year into the organization being there. Prior to that, it's hard to know. I'm not trying to dodge the question. It's just that nobody can say for sure. It depends on who you listen to. Certainly, everyone agrees that Renee was starting IVs, doing some medical things, dosing medication. The details about that, it depends on who you're listening to.
Alison Stewart: When you were looking at all of the footage and assembling your rough cuts and sitting in the edit, and you started to watch all the footage of the clinic, what was something that was revealed to you about Renee or about her role at the clinic or the clinic that maybe you hadn't really digested yet?
Jackie Jescko: I totally had a huge Eureka moment when we got a lot of that archival footage, which was shot by a third-party videographer who was essentially making a commercial for Serving His Children, because it shows Renee alongside Ugandan professionals. The dynamic is really interesting because you can tell that she is the boss. She's in charge. I had read the affidavits from some of her employees, and they had said this, but it wasn't really until I watched the video that it became clear to me that dynamic.
Also, I think one thing that's really difficult about this series that we dealt with very delicately is how sick these children are. It's a very vulnerable condition to be in. That was something that really made a huge impact seeing versus just hearing about.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Jackie Jescko, Director of Savior Complex. Part one airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 PM. There's this moment when you're interviewing Renee Bach, this woman who started out feeding children who were malnourished and evolved into something else, which some people feel is nefarious, where she doesn't seem to understand the word neocolonialism. Why did you include that moment? She looks up, and she's like, "I don't know what that means."
Jackie Jescko: I thought it was just a really interesting moment. That happened at our very first shoot with her, actually, before we even had this greenlight by HBO. Part of me wondered if she was joking a little bit. I'm not totally sure, but I think either way, it shows that there's this whole discussion about her case and what it means in this larger context of white saviourism, neocolonialism, and things like that, that she's not really that interested in engaging with or doesn't really understand.
Alison Stewart: Do you have a sense of which it is? Does it want to engage or-- You interview her mother, and her mother clearly doesn't want to engage. She challenges the interviewer, I'm not sure it was you, back saying, "I'm not going to say what you want me to say." As a journalist, you don't want her to say anything, you just want the truth.
Jackie Jescko: Yes. That was more about Renee's medical involvement, as opposed to these larger, more heady themes. I think, look, we certainly had tough interviews, for sure, and we asked all of the hard questions. It's a very murky situation. It's a really difficult thing to report out because it's not like we could even cross-check a lot of the facts with outside bodies, like entities. The Uganda government wasn't keeping track of admissions to her clinic or deaths from her clinic. Nobody was, except for them. That made it really difficult as a reporter to try and really nail down what exactly happened here, when, how, what. I think we did as good a job as was humanly possible.
Alison Stewart: I think that's also part of the story, is the lack of regulation and the lack of accountability. That's an underlying vibe through this series. We're going to talk more with Jackie Jescko, Director of Savior Complex, part 1, airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 PM. It's one of three hours. We'll talk a little bit more about one of the organizations who brought Renee Bach's name to the forefront and the issues within that organization as well. This is All Of It.
You're listening to All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. My guest is Jackie Jescko. She's a director of Savior Complex. Part one airs on HBO Tonight. It is an investigation into the case of Renee Bach, a white missionary who went to Uganda to feed malnourished children and has been accused of being involved with the death of more than 105 children who were under her care at some point.
One of your whistleblowers, this woman, Jackie, came through. I think she was pretty fresh out of nursing school when she went to Uganda. She said she thinks that it's possible that Renee didn't understand the consequences of refeeding syndrome, which is when a malnourished person is, too much is introduced to the system too quickly, especially for babies, and the health suffers as a result. What did Jackie claim was mishandled when it came to refeeding at the clinic?
Jackie Jescko: Jackie's main claim was mostly that Renee just wasn't aware of that being a risk, and that she was in the habit of putting saline IVs into children when they first arrived, even though that could carry a risk of triggering refeeding syndrome. She had gone through, or she said she had gone through different files of children who had passed away, and she felt like that was a factor in these children's deaths.
Alison Stewart: At one point, Renee had doctors and nurses working with her, this woman, Constance, a local woman. When you spoke to medical professionals, what did they tell you about working with Renee?
Jackie Jescko: We had a couple of varied perspectives. Constance, she certainly is a supporter and loyal to Renee. She always said that Renee worked alongside, only did things when asked. Then we also interviewed-, it's like a physician's assistant. It's called some kind of clinician, I forget. We found one of Renee's old clinicians, and we interviewed him. He basically said that he would go there, and a lot of the times, Renee had already started the medical treatment, and that she was the boss. He really couldn't tell her what to do. We had different stories.
Alison Stewart: Renee has made the case that many of these children were very, very ill when they come to her, and that is part of the reason why this mortality rate. Were you able to confirm that? Were you able to put that in context, that claim?
Jackie Jescko: Yes, it certainly is true that there's no reason to think it isn't true that a lot of children came, and they were really, really sick talking to everybody. That seems unanimously agreed upon that, that was the case. We talked to a lot of people who we didn't include in the series as well, and they also confirmed it. I guess the only way we could try to contextualize it was we used Serving His Children's own numbers, again, Serving His Children's numbers that we cannot verify, but that they put forth. We asked a couple of Ugandan professionals who work in this field how they felt about that number of an 11% fatality rate.
They described that as actually being good, like a positive rate, and very similar to the nation's best hospital. They have a malnutrition unit, their fatality rates. That was interesting to find out. It's one of those things where it's like, "Oh, that's a conflicting fact with some of the other aspects of this story." It's a messy story.
Alison Stewart: It is messy, and it gets messier when you get into this group called No White Saviors. No White Saviors is started by a woman who was very much like Renee, who was a missionary, as well as she partners with locals. Basically saying, this No White Savior campaign is like, "Hey," let's call attention to the fact that people are coming into these communities with this savior complex, and doing what they want to do and saying they're being supported by God and that God is driving them to do these things. How did No White Savior bring more attention to Renee Bach?
Jackie Jescko: No White Saviors, they have full credit. They're the only reason the world knows about the Renee Bach story because Kelsey Nielsen, the American co-founder of No White Saviors, knew Renee and was part of this tight-knit missionary community that Renee was also a part of. Renee's organization, as you see in the series, gets shut down. Kelsey was part of a group of women who were helping effort that.
Basically, she felt like Renee faced no consequences. She goes on to create No White Saviors with a woman named Olivia Alaso, a Ugandan woman who actually had once worked for Kelsey when Kelsey had her own organization. The two of them start the organization not just to bring Renee's story to the world, but it certainly became a huge focus for them.
Alison Stewart: The documentary also shows that their practices might fall outside the bounds of what some people think are appropriate. How did No White Saviors make a name for itself? What kind of tactics did they use?
Jackie Jescko: With this story, they would write very inflammatory posts. I'm not saying that they weren't true technically. They were usually based in truth, but it was the most inflammatory possible version of the truth. They call Renee Bach, the Angel of Death. They say she killed 105 children definitively as if that's a fact, which it just frankly is not something that is a provable fact. It just presented the most extreme version of the story. It worked, it got a lot of attention. It got a lot. It had media pick-up. They were able to fundraise enough to hire an attorney who brought a civil lawsuit against Renee Bach.
Alison Stewart: One of the other online elements of this is Renee kept a blog during this time, and she would narrate. She used it like a journal. Tell us a little bit more about what you learned from this blog, how it helped you understand the story more.
Jackie Jescko: The blog was a fascinating piece of evidence because I think what it really showed was how open she was about what she was doing. The medical work even. Partially, it helped me understand the religious element of it, because that's not how she talks anymore, or at least that's not how she spoke to me. Really, it was her just writing about doing all this wide variety of medical stuff. The really crazy part was that the comments, the comments were all just, "Wow, you're like Jesus on earth. You're like Mother Teresa, this is so amazing."
She was in a cycle where everybody was telling her what she was doing was right, correct, awesome. They're donating and continuing to lift her up in this way. I think that reveals something interesting about her audience and her donors that nobody was like, "Oh, maybe you need to step back a little bit."
Alison Stewart: What was her fundraising pitch? What did she tell people was her intention?
Jackie Jescko: Her intention, she said that it was to save these children who were falling through the cracks in Uganda. Basically, she was standing in the gap for them, and that the idea was to break the cycle of malnutrition, and that gets into education and all this other stuff. As part of that pitch is her personal narrative. I think as charities, anything else, you have to tell a story to get people's attention. To get funding, you have to tell a good story. Renee herself was a good story, a very unlikely hero, uneducated, she has a high school diploma, but not a college educated girl, just picks herself up, moves overseas, bootstraps it, and then is able to help all these children. It's a compelling story.
Alison Stewart: As I mentioned, there was a lawsuit brought against Renee and Serving His Children. That's got a lot of detail. I think people need to watch the documentary to understand, but this takes another twist. At one point in filming this documentary, did the white co-founder of No White Saviors step down? It got very meta. She was accused of white savioring No White Saviors. For people who you have your head in your hands.
Jackie Jescko: [laughs] It happened very late. In our process, obviously, since Kelsey is in most of our footage with No White Saviors. I believe that happened in 2022. Essentially, No White Saviors had this very public implosion where Olivia, the Ugandan co-founder accused Kelsey, the American co-founder of a variety of things, including misappropriating funds, but also just being the white savior of No White Saviors. There's certainly some interesting overlapping themes here. It felt like something worth including.
Alison Stewart: You did speak to her. It's interesting, we're getting texts and tweets, as you can imagine. I want to say again, this is three hours long, and a lot of the things that people are tweeting to us are covered in the film. It's a thorough investigation of this story. When you got to the end of filming and you really were in the editing process, what was a theme that came through that you didn't anticipate?
Jackie Jescko: I didn't anticipate. That's a hard question. I'm not sure I have a good answer for that. I think that we sort of knew a lot of the themes that were going to be present pretty early on. I do think it is interesting to think about the ways in which organizations that are nonprofits do have to sustain themselves through public funding and appeals and storytelling. I guess that was something that I hadn't thought that deeply about prior to this. That would be it.
Alison Stewart: What is the role of faith in God in all of this for the Ugandans, for the missionaries?
Jackie Jescko: It's really interesting because almost all of the Ugandan characters are also Christians. Most of Ugandans are Christian already. I think people use faith in different ways. For Renee, it was this idea, like empowering thing. To a degree, that became problematic. I think for someone like Constance, it's a balm. It's something to hold onto when times are tough.
Prima's also a woman of faith and she felt like she didn't really get in the series, but she didn't feel like this was an attack against all missionaries. She felt like it was more of a warning, a signal. You can't just come here and do whatever you want in Uganda. You guys need to understand that this is like I'm sending this warning.
Alison Stewart: Do you know where Renee Bach is today?
Jackie Jescko: I do.
Alison Stewart: Are you in contact with her?
Jackie Jescko: Yes.
Alison Stewart: Has she seen the film?
Jackie Jescko: She has not yet seen the film.
Alison Stewart: Savior Complex part one, one of three parts, airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 PM. My guest has been director Jackie Jescko. Jackie, thank you for being with us and being so candid about your work and about reporting the story.
Jackie Jescko: Thanks so much, Alison.
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