Silverdocs: A Conversation with HolyWars Filmmaker Stephen Marshall
Stephen Marshall is a Canadian filmmaker, author, and entrepreneur. His new documentary HolyWars follows two men fiercely devoted to their respective faiths. Aaron is an American missionary who travels to the world’s most dangerous places in his quest to save souls. Khalid is a devout Muslim convert of Irish origin who sympathizes with the Taliban and dreams of martyrdom. In a fascinating social experiment, Marshall brings these two men together for a religious debate. HolyWars will be showing at the Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring this Friday. The screening takes place at 2:15 p.m. at AFI Silver Theater 1.
Washington City Paper: What inspired you to make HolyWars?
Stephen Marshall: We started working on it in 2006. At that time, it was George Bush’s era, and there was fundamentalism in the air and this hunger for the end of the world. We wondered, if enough people believe in this, can they make it come true? When I started working on HolyWars, I had characters in five continents. I shot Jihadists in Indonesia, in Lebanon, in Iran. I had a bunch of people ranting at the camera but nothing really powerful. So I started to look at two characters, Aaron and Khalid, and thought about getting them together. Aaron didn’t want to meet at first but they eventually did, and the rest was history.
WCP: What was it about Aaron and Khalid that grabbed you?
SM: Aaron was the only missionary in the United States who agreed to go on camera. A core part of my pitch was that I was going to have this danger-seeking missionary. We talked to every single missionary organization in the country, but no one would go except Aaron. And Aaron wasn’t the strongest character. He wasn’t much of a free thinker and he was kind of under the tutelage of his parents. But there were these things he did, like when he went to Pakistan to convert people. The visuals were so cinematic. So I stuck with him. And Khalid to me was this amazing enigma and paradox. He was this white Irish guy who was a Muslim and he was one of the most articulate spokesmen for his cause. And he loved the camera.
That said, they both presented a lot of complications. Khalid didn’t trust me. Aaron liked me but couldn’t really communicate his points in the way I wanted him to. Once they agreed to meet, I kind of got locked in.
WCP: I noticed that two men had very different conversational styles. You show Aaron at home with his family, where everyone waits their turn to speak. Then you compare that to the dinner with Khalid and his friends, where everyone talked on top of each other. Do you think these different ways of communicating affected the men’s ability to converse?
SM: Aaron was just destroyed in the debate. There was a lack of politesse. There was a lack of formal process in the way that they talked and that’s very British. It’s almost a street fighting mentality. Khalid wouldn’t let Aaron finish his sentences. Aaron is too polite, so he got flustered and dissolved into a puddle. He was almost in tears.
But that was the beginning of Aaron’s rapprochement. While talking to Khalid, he begin to realize, "Oh my God, this guy’s upset." His natural instinct was to come closer, whereas Khalid’s was to push away.
All Aaron had ever done is go to other countries and say "I’ll pray on you, I’ll bless you," it’s a monologue. Once he gets in a dialogue, his neurons start firing. He starts talking differently. He wears his hair differently. Suddenly he’s almost like this great character. He owes so much to Khalid.
WCP: You only showed a portion of the debate. It must have been a challenge communicating what went on between the men in an abbreviated fashion.
SM: It was definitely an experiment in breaking down the fourth wall, which I respect very highly. I never do voice over, actually, ever. This was the first time in this film. My editor really and truly pushed me to do VO because what was happening in the film screenings was that people thought this was a Christian film. They thought we were showing how Christianity had the power to reform itself and Islam didn’t. I was shocked. In the end I had to say, "Hey, you know without Khalid, Aaron would never have really changed." It sounds silly, but I think it works.
WCP: I had actually been planning to ask you if you’d gotten flack from the Christian community for comparing a Christian missionary to a Taliban sympathizer.
SM: No, they didn’t have a problem with that. They didn’t even see our point that they’re similar. A lot of people thought it was a Christian film because in the end, Aaron changed a lot and Khalid went off to join the Taliban. If I’d done a film about two football teams and one fails and the other wins, would you say that I was picking this team over that? When it comes to people and religion, suddenly, it becomes ‘where is the filmmaker on this instead?’ when it should be looked at as an anthropological study.
WCP: Did you see a similarity in Aaron’s idea that America is God’s country and Khalid’s belief in a future Muslim caliphate?
SM: Totally. You have these two competing visions of world orders based on religious values that were given by gods centuries ago, which are absolutely frightening.
Everybody has their own idea of a New World Order. Even liberals in their view of a great free market system, that’s a caliphate, too. If you talk to people in Pakistan or Lebanon, they’ll talk about the American fundamentalism around economics. We talk about it with the same prophetic zeal, and it’s almost like, if you don’t do this, you’re going to be poor. A lot of people who aren’t Christian, you ask them why people are poor and they’ll say because they aren’t democratic.
WCP: Do you think that in some ways, we can look at Aaron and Khalid and view their disagreements as a Microcosm of the larger arguments between the two faiths?
SM: Yes. The microcosm is this poison-pill idea that if you don’t believe in Jesus as your lord and savior, you will go to hell, or if you don’t believe in Muhammad, you will go to Hell. I’ve been to several church screenings and when I bring this up, they say "I may believe you’re going to Hell, but I still treat you with love." OK, fine. But down the line, somewhere if the standing belief is that you are going to hell, it will lead to some kind of exclusion and discrimination. More importantly, when you live in a fundamentalist paradigm, where the word of the bible is God or the word of the Koran is God, you create this childlike playground where the rules are set by an external entity and they’re not adaptive. While the rest of the world is evolving, you’re remaining in self-sealing tomb.
WCP: Khalid obviously had problems before his conversion. What do you think it was about his time in Saudi prison that suddenly led him to discover his faith?
SM: I don’t think it started in Saudi Arabia. I think there were things happening in Ireland with the church. And he hates the Catholic Church. I don’t know if something happened to him. He became an alcoholic to the point where he was running a personal booze business in Saudi Arabia. Then in prison, someone was offering him salvation, and he just heard it coming through loud and clear.
I definitely feel that Khalid had this nihilism about him. Even though Khalid’s not really a threat, he’d like to think of himself as one. All his talk is focused on this battle that would only lead to his own destruction.
WCP: Do you think that he’s capable of finding happiness, whether through learning to compromise or in finding some way to practice his vision of Islam on Earth, or to you think he’s kind of this tragic figure?
SM: You know, it’s interesting. He was kicked out of Pakistan and forced into Romania. They took his wife out with all their kids and strip-searched them. His family was detained at Heathrow by MI5. His wife left him and he was forced to go back to Ireland. He’s basically there now by himself. And yet his tone is incredibly happy. I know that the secret service is talking to him every week so I’m not worried that he’s thinking there’s only one thing left to do. But also, I think that Khalid loves life too much. He’s not the suicidal prototype. I think he can find happiness. I think that Khalid wants to be happy.
WCP: Aaron is a changed man at the end of the film, but he doesn’t seem to come full circle either.
SM: Yeah, he’s not fully coming around. You can say, where’s the value on that, but if 50% of fundamentalist Christians in the US moved over to where he is now, this would be a different country. Aaron once would only vote for a Republican, would be a Sarah Palin supporter without even thinking about it. He’s totally not there anymore. He’s listening to people. Yes, he does believe that Jesus walked the Earth, and he’s not going back on that. But as far as I’m concerned, if Jesus is your role model, I’m down.
WCP: It was incredible to hear that his major epiphany was the realization that developing countries aren’t poor simply because they don’t share his faith
SM: Right. His causal reality changes from one of making the wrong choice of prophets to economic realities that are the end game of colonialism.
WCP: Did you feel that there was anything cynical or opportunistic on his end when he started giving speeches about his debate with Khalid or when he wrote a book about their encounter?
SM: One of the reasons Aaron was willing to do the film was because he’s dreamed of having this great ministry. None of his actual practices or his words were false. He’s as authentic as it gets. So it wasn’t cynical, but it was probably opportunistic at times. But as for the book, his life was changed. He had an authentic come to Jesus moment.
WCP: From what you could tell, were the people in his church who listened to his speeches receptive to his message?
SM: The young people were, but the parents, they’re just not. They literally hear Aaron saying that he wants to bring Muslims over here, which terrifies them. Like Aaron’s dad, he’s a really nice guy. I hang out with him and just don’t talk about religion or politics. He’s one of the guys who lost his job in the crunch. I think he’s a great guy, but he’s a fundamentalist.
One of the reasons when I watch the film right now and see relevance is that, I think we have moved back into a pre-apocalyptic mind frame and that is when these characters start to emerge again. And I think that what we will see if we are not careful , and this is not just in religion, are people who will rise up and start to say that we need to make sure that our world view is the world view because if we don’t then we’ll have to share it.
WCP: In your opinion, are we seeing this kind of thinking in the Tea Party movement and the Birther movement and these other kinds of fringe groups that have formed since Obama was elected?
SM: I mean, the passport controversy–it goes to scarcity. Scarcity applies to resources, it applies to everything. All of a sudden, there’s not enough, so everything’s a fight. And the Birthers and the Tea Party–they’re like Aaron’s father, emerging from the end of the industrial sector. They don’t have anything to do. They barely have enough money in the bank to survive on their retirement plans, and they’re asking why Obama is building new schools. Even though their children will benefit from those schools. It’s this jealousy of resources. The writer Chris Hedges said, you know, this may go away for a couple years, but go to the red states and really hang out and they are like ready for the apocalypse. And when a black man became president! They don’t want to say it, they feel bad saying it ,but they just can’t believe it.
WCP: What do you think are some of the steps that we need to take to foster dialogue?
SM: So the Khalids and the Aarons of the world, at these film festivals they seem like they’re miles away, but I spent a lot of time down there and realized that you can talk to these people. They know when you’re being honest. Aaron’s dad loves the film. He knows he came off terribly, but he thought it was fair. We’ve had conversations about religion and I’ve had conversations with major pastors about religion, and they’re open. When you say that the principle that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to Hell – that principle creates problems in our world, they stop and say its true. So I say, OK, it’s true for you but there are three billion people in our world or more who don’t believe it’s true. Can we talk about that? So there is room for dialogue, but I think that those of us in the secular world don’t want to engage. I just hope that if one message comes through it’s that you can’t abandon the age-old pursuit of diplomacy. We can’t afford to stand on the sidelines because they can take control of the narrative.
WCP: You mentioned the secular world. What do you think the news and film world should do to get a dialogue started?
SM: What I tried to do in my film was to make a charismatic, entertaining model for this conversation. It went beyond the conversation and there’s much more to it than that, but that’s the first step.
WCP: Do you think that entertainment is a crucial component in getting people excited about this topic?
SM: It’s primary. That’s where people go increasingly–entertainment. It’ the thing that keeps your attention focused and it has to be used to address one of the longest standing feuds on planet earth.
My film Battle Ground was the first time that I realized how conflict can draw a point and how much more entertaining it is. There’s this conflict in Battle Ground, where there’s this young Iraqi translator, is really critical of American foreign policy. And there’s this other guy who’s like, "They’re coming here to save us.’ And it was amazing. So this film, I wanted to have it all be about conflict. And as much as I don’t like conflict in my life, Reality TV has created this situation where arcs are built around conflict between characters. But where reality TV reduces people to their basest level, I wanted this arc to reveal their complexities. And if I can do that in my work, that is the most gratifying thing. If I was to do another film like this, it would have to take this idea further. It would have to be based around individuals whose lives intersect in some way and in a way that has an explosive quality to it and which I can film. And if I can make that happen in a way that’s more powerful than this–I don’t think I want to make another film until I can do that.