In making HOLY WARS, filmmaker Stephen Marshall devoted several years to
following two religious fundamentalists – one Christian and one Muslim
– in an attempt to compare and contrast two views of religion,
tolerance and extremism.
The Christian (Aaron) periodically leaves his family in the American
heartland to travel around the world as a missionary. The Muslim
(Khalid), an Irish convert living in London, lives into Aaron’s image
of a radical who advocates a global jihad. The film attempts to tell
both stories fairly, separately and impartially but
from the beginning scenes of the movie, filmed in Pakistan after an
altercation, we know this will be Khalid’s story.
A smart, provocative, focused and engaging figure, Khalid is
desperate to find a “traditional” home for he, his Pakistani wife, and
their infant son (who he names after Osama Bin Laden). It’s clear from
the onset that it can’t be London; the public paranoia and fear in the
“Post-9/11” world clashes dramatically with Khalid’s unwillingness
to soften his public rhetoric (which is sometimes disarming, proclaimed in
his Irish accent). It is clear that the longer the family stays in England,
the more likely he will be arrested alongside his other outspoken
About half way into HOLY WARS, or about a year and a half into
documenting his subjects, director Marshall sets up a time and a place
for them to meet for the first time and attempts to create a dialog
between two extremes, for the sake of the film. What could go wrong?
Despite polite and cordial introductions, moments in it is clear Aaron
is out of his league as he is confronted by Khalid’s hostility,
anger and perspectives on issues Aaron isn’t prepared for. What he
assumed was going to be a discussion on theology turns into lessons on
morality and the larger responsibility of seeing first hand the anger
“on the other side.” He is clearly shaken by this – never in his
travels as a missionary had he been pointedly attacked about the clash
between his beliefs and the actions of his government in such a
It is undeniable the impact these meeting has on both men. What could
have come across as a staged stunt for the movie, becomes the apex in
both of their lives and stories.
Aaron returns home to Missouri to try and process what had happened.
Eventually he finds the words to properly articulate that
profound moment in his life and – to the surprise of his family-
slowly move to a more “moderate” ground.
On the flip side, the experience seems to strengthen Khalid’s
fundamentalism, as he rapidly becomes more and more militant.
Eventually leaving London for good, Marshall follows Khalid to
Pakistan, but even there, at least in the urban centers, he is seen as too
radical. At this point there seems to be only one dreadful option, as
Khalid appears ready to go into the countryside and join the
I really loved this movie. Stephen Marshall’s intimate style conveys
the tension and the urgency needed when, by the end, he has clearly
traveled with his subject much further than is safe.
HOLY WARS is an entrant in the Sterling US Feature competition and has its world premiere at Silverdocs. It screens Tuesday evening 6/22 and Friday afternoon 6/25.
– C.W. Prather is a member of the SilverDocs 2010 screening committee.