HBO’s docuseries Savior Complex: Deadly delusions

By Gen Terblanche14 February 2024

HBO’s docuseries Savior Complex: Deadly delusions

In 2007, American high school student Renee Bach spent nine months volunteering at a missionary-run Ugandan orphanage. Two years later, armed with nothing more than a high school diploma and a belief that she had a calling, she returned to set up her own NGO at the age of 19.  

Renee’s NGO, Serving His Children (SHC), began as a feeding programme for local children in Junja, Uganda. From there, it turned into a nutrition centre – an outpatient clinic where babies and young children who’d undergone treatment for severe malnutrition at a local children’s hospital, Nalufenya, could continue their recovery before going home. Renee intended to use the NGO to save those babies…and to spread her church’s take on Christianity to people tormented by fear of a child’s death, or experiencing euphoria at their recovery. 

Savior Complex on Showmax

Renee excitedly documented her efforts online in her blog. Ten years later that same blog would be used as evidence in court when she was brought to trial in a civil case in connection with the deaths of around 105 of the 940 children in care at SHC between 2010 and 2015.  

How did she get there? It’s complex.  

HBO documentary Savior Complex spotlights the steps on this road to hell paved with good intentions. The documentary gives Renee space to express her sincere good intentions to help where she saw that help was desperately needed. But it also exposes the problems caused when she (and others like her) choose to put themselves in charge of situations that they’re completely unqualified to even understand. 

Watch Savior Complex now »

Seven ways to build a “baby killer” 

1. Wilful ignorance 

As the documentary explores Renee’s background, it shows why, during the 10 years in which she pursued her “calling”, she never pursued the medical training that she needed to properly assess the needs of severely malnourished children, let alone provide the delicate balance of their care.  

Savior Complex on Showmax

Renee was homeschooled and raised to be dismissive of the evidence-based sciences that might prompt her to question her church’s teachings. Savior Complex opens with a quote that Renee seems to have taken to heart: “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” And the documentary reveals what happens when people like Renee and her mentors confuse spiritual qualifications like courage, readiness, and confidence with practical qualifications, like medical knowledge, construction skills, or teaching training.  

2. Dangerous cases 

SHC slowly changed their mission from feeding local children, to acting as an outpatient clinic, to more dangerous ground. The promise of free food and shelter and, as Renee noted in her blog, its “white doctor”, came to draw the most desperate from the poverty-stricken area.  

Savior Complex on Showmax

Renee came to see herself as being in competition with the hospital. And she ignored (or never bothered to familiarise herself with) Ugandan laws stating that children suffering from serious medical conditions like severe malnutrition, HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis and parasitic infections like malaria and worms, could only be treated by expert professionals in higher-level health centres. As a result, SHC took in children who might have died with even the most sophisticated intervention.  

3. Overstepping 

Savior Complex asks whether some of those dead children might have recovered, had Renee Bach not insisted on putting herself in charge of overseeing their care, and instead deferred to more qualified local Ugandan people and made it her mission to support them.  

Savior Complex on Showmax

Even going from handing bowls of food to hungry children, to becoming a care centre for recovering paediatric patients isn’t just a step, it’s a leap. And it’s one that should have required a top-down restructuring of SHC, including licensing SHC as a medical clinic – which did not happen until 2014, at which point it was licensed only as an outpatient clinic. But a review of SHC would have moved Renee far from the leadership role she chose for herself, and the feeling that she, personally, was saving the children.  

4. Main character syndrome 

In 2011, the death rate at SHC was 20%. In 2013, after Renee Bach finally hired two qualified medical doctors, it fell to 10%. But even when fully trained and educated Ugandan doctors and nurses were available, witnesses in Savior Complex reveal that Renee would often ignore their advice and treatment plans in favour of what she believed God was telling her personally. And if child after child died, Renee’s childhood training to trust faith rather than evidence ensured that she focussed only on the ones who survived.  

Savior Complex on Showmax

Interviews in Savior Complex reveal that Renee might have administered medication, ran IVs and performed blood transfusions herself. And clinic staff and parents of patients reveal that she regularly dressed in a white coat and carried a stethoscope. The Ugandans who came to her for help had no idea that Renee was no more qualified to treat their children than they were themselves. And Renee basked in their trust and pleas for help.  

5. Voluntourism 

When Renee Bach landed in Uganda one day with zero qualifications or experience nobody told her to go home because you can’t have the most ignorant person in charge. Savior Complex questions the network of international “voluntourism” that empowers unqualified aid volunteers like Renee to believe that whatever help they provide will be superior to what any of the local people can do. It exposes the impact of flooding struggling areas of the world with unskilled aid workers, and it explores why churches like Renee’s select young, photogenic missionaries to pour their financial backing into, instead of funding existing local clinics or care networks run and staffed by Ugandans themselves.  

6. Global inequality 

What would have happened, had a Ugandan high school student (whose education might have been an improvement on Renee’s) opened a children’s clinic in a poor town in Renee’s home state of Virginia?  

The documentary spotlights the impact that Renee’s privilege had as someone from a wealthy country, backed by church fundraising and an exchange system that astronomically favoured American pockets. With a monthly living wage for a Ugandan coming in around $177, a Sunday church donation plate could easily cover whatever Renee and SHC needed and more – while locally funded and founded aid had to go begging to keep the lights on.  

Added to this, Renee had the privileges of race and class in a country with a colonial past. And unlike anyone she worked with, when things got tough, Renee wouldn’t starve or suffer herself. She had a plane ticket home. But she’d have to leave her feeling of specialness behind in Uganda.  

Savior Complex turns to the work of activist group No White Saviours (while also providing a pointed critique at the organisation for being on its own White Saviour mission), to highlight exactly the kind of neocolonialist ego trip that Renee was on.  

7. Inequality at home 

But why did Renee Bach have to go all the way to Uganda to fulfil her self proclaimed mission? Savior Complex filmmaker Jackie Jesko hints at the power structures that Renee, as a young evangelical woman, was facing in the United States. The documentary points out that within her church, Renee was relatively powerless. She’d be expected to be humble. To dedicate herself to marriage and children. To submit to her husband. All her major church outreaches would be male dominated. Renee would be told what to do from morning till night.

And with no training, no education, and no chance of escaping oversight, she couldn’t carry out community work based solely on what her gut and ego told her. There’s not much to blog about in the unglamorous backroom work she’d be relegated to, no babies to save. And no feeling that the work she was doing was impactful at all.  

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