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by Lybarger

"A sane and thoughtful examination of a volatile subject."
4 stars

Screened at the True/False 2010 Documentary Film Festival: Stephen Marshall’s ‘HolyWars’ is a film about a couple of brave men.

Khalid Kelly is an Irish-born convert to Islam who believes the Taliban are doing something right and has walked through the streets of London telling Christians they’re on the wrong path.
Aaron D. Taylor is an Evangelical missionary from Missouri who has preached the gospel in countries where his fellow Christians are actively persecuted. Neither man is shy about his beliefs, and Marshall demonstrates similar courage in presenting how these men look at the world and why the issues they discuss shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Marshall, a Canadian filmmaker who’s currently living in Los Angeles, followed both Kelly and Taylor for three years and at one point asked the two to meet for a discussion. He also lets both of them explain why they believe what they do.

Both start the film with apocalyptic visions of the world. In the voiceover, Marshall ponders if having so many people wanting the end of the world as we know it could lead to a catastrophe outside the pages of the Bible or the Qur’an.

Neither Kelly nor Taylor seems all that radical at first. Marshall introduces Kelly as he’s gently giving a baby an injection. He’s a nurse who has a charming bedside manner. But when we’re introduced to Kelly’s family, Marshall reveals that Kelly has named his baby son “Osama.”
This is not an oversight or a name that runs through his or his wife’s family. Both he and his wife think Osama bin Laden has been great for the world and Islam.
Early in the film Taylor’s family believes the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be viewed as simple conflicts between good and evil and that God continually blesses Christian states.

Both men have reasons for their fervent beliefs. Taylor has been electrified by watching missionaries apply their faith, and Kelly can be justified in decrying his life before he became a Muslim. He had been a heavy drinker who went to prison in Saudi Arabia because he’d been selling alcohol there. The authorities in that country treat booze as if it were heroin. From listening to Kelly, it’s obvious he’d be lost without the religion he adopted in incarceration.

Because neither man is likely to back down on his religious philosophies, Marshall provides some important contextual information that helps outsiders to Kelly and Taylor’s viewpoints understand their ideas more clearly. He even includes an animated depiction (by Kansas City-based animation studio MK12) of both the Bible’s and the Qur’an’s versions of Armageddon.

The film’s climactic moment is when Kelly and Taylor meet to discuss their belief and how they see the post 9/11 world. Initially polite, the conversation gets expectedly heated.

Kelly says some outrageous stuff (he claims Islamic countries don’t have problems with pedophilia), but he’s a quick thinker and has a forceful manner that’s tough to argue against. Even when Kelly’s dead wrong, Taylor has difficulty getting in a word edgewise and seems floored to learn about how many people died in Iraq due to the sanctions after the first Gulf War.

From the meeting, both men’s lives change completely. When Kelly’s radical friends are jailed in the wake of the 7/7 attacks, he heads first to Lebanon and then to Pakistan. In the latter country, he soon discovers that his brand of Islam is too violent and radical for the people there. Kelly even tries to join the Taliban during their siege of the Swat valley and becomes downright frightening in his single-mindedness.

Taylor, however, begins to look at his philosophies in a new light. After studying both the Bible and world events, he concludes that theocracy is harmful to both church and state and that Christians need to work to understand where America’s detractors are coming from and to avoid meriting their criticisms.

I don’t want to turn his new viewpoints into a caricature, so I’d advise anyone who’s curious about Taylor’s ministry to check out his book Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War, where he actually uses the example of the Old Testament to explain why a theocracy can be counter productive.

Watching Taylor gain a wisdom that’s equal to his zeal is inspiring and drives the film. Marshall wouldn’t have achieved these scenes if he hadn’t gotten so close to either man. Marshall’s unobtrusive narration personalizes the film appropriately. It’s hard not to listen these fellows state the positions without getting riled up.

By admitting what he feels about watching his subjects change over the years he’s known them, Marshall actually gives ‘HolyWars’ more credibility because objectivity is just about impossible when dealing with religion. Marshall doesn’t come from a religious background, so knowing where he stands is essential.

Listening to Taylor during the final portions of ‘HolyWars’ is both enlightening and sobering. From his example and from the film, we learn that there is an unfathomable gap between faith and fanaticism. The former can lead to great things while the latter can lead to harm.

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originally posted: 07/16/10 13:23:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival For more in the 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/02/12 Wendy Well made and evokative. I found it very engaging. 4 stars
7/19/10 Ronald Holst Yet another war moveabout heroics Boring 3 stars
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