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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jul. 30, 2010





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DocuWeeks Review: HOLY WARS

Before getting into the more serious issues raised in Stephen Marshall’s excellent documentary Holy Wars, let it be said that never has Armageddon been rendered with such nifty graphics.  Illustrating his larger point that many Christians and Muslims are convinced we are living in the end times, Marshall uses said graphics to illustrate the Christian concept of the Rapture, followed by Satan led Armageddon, followed by Christ establishing his new law in the end times.  Then we get the same breakdown from the Muslim perspective, in which Jesus and Mohammed join forces to vanquish Satan and establish the law of Islam. 


Computer generated apocalypse aside, Marshall has an ambitious agenda here, and he begins the film by announcing his intention to search out two fundamentalists and bring them together for a filmed debate.  In one corner, representing evangelical Christianity, we have Missourian Aaron Taylor, who is dedicated to converting Muslims in the so called “Green Square”, which includes the war zones of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  One early sequence in the film depicts Taylor preaching to a group of Pakistanis under the protection of armed guards.


Representing the Muslim point of view is Irish born Khalid Kelly, who converted to Islam in 2000 after being thrown into a Saudi Arabian prison for selling bootleg liquor. Establishing himself in London after his release, he’s as much an evangelist as Taylor; the film shows several scenes of him attempting to hand out pamphlets in the streets.  Already an uneasy place for Muslims following the 9/11 attacks, things became increasingly tense after the subway bombings in 2005 which seemed to have originated on British soil.  Following the bombings, Khalid becomes increasingly vocal in his opposition to British authorities, and eventually begins looking around for more friendly Muslim lands where he and his family can relocate.


The meeting we see between Aaron and Khalid offers a fascinating glimpse into the difficulty of interfaith debate.  Under these circumstances, it’s rare to see either side give much ground, but in this case Marshall captures a surprising result.  At first Aaron comes across as woefully uninformed, at least when it comes to the Muslim side of the debate.  Khalid levels a series of charges against Christianity and the West, concluding by offering Aaron the “deal” that if Christians quit attacking Muslim lands, Muslims will stop attacking theirs. 


The encounter clearly sticks with Aaron, and in the weeks and months that follow, he actually begins to conjure some empathy for the Muslim point of view.  He clings fast to his Christian beliefs, but he starts to actively question the belief held by his family that the US is “God’s Country.”  Meanwhile, Khalid appears to have taken little away from the encounter, and is shown in the latter sections of the film trying to align himself with Taliban fighters in the dangerous tribal regions of Pakistan.


Marshall tries hard to maintain an objective distance in the film, but falters in his choice to include his own occasional voiceover narration, which mainly ends up reiterating what we’ve already seen.  Also problematic is the revelation that Marshall that he erased some of his footage out of fear that he could be arrested for assisting a Taliban fighter.  While this is a very human reaction, it takes the viewer out of the story and makes us wonder what else we haven’t been shown. 


Some issues are left unexamined.  It would have been interesting to learn more about Khalid’s life before he became Muslim, but there are many sections of the film where Marshall brings up subjects that Khalid refuses to discuss; anything pre-conversion would likely have been at the top of the list.  A post script at the end of the film indicates that Aaron is “still close with his family”.  While this may in fact be true, it feels like an unnecessary simplification of the more complex dynamics depicted earlier in the film.


None of this takes away from the many significant questions raised here. Are American democratic and economic policies a byproduct of Christianity or do they exist in spite of it?  Can there be such a thing as “defensive jihad”, as Khalid posits? With the recent leak of thousands of documents questioning the success of the U.S mission in Afghanistan, Holy Wars couldn’t be more timely.  It’s an eye opening look at a clash of cultures that appears to be growing more volatile by the day.


Holy Wars opens July 30th as part of the Docuweeks series at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood.  For more information visit
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http://www.documentary.org/docuweeks2010

Holy Wars (Trailer) from (r)evolutiontheory on Vimeo.

 


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