As the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland enters its busy weekend, three world premieres have brought inspired debates to audiences here. Rev. Billy, the charismatic and fiery subject of 2007's "What Would Jesus Buy?" was in attendance to support the small town activists in Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood's world premiere for "On Coal River." The film follows a group of West Virginians who labor to get the government to acknowledge the health side effects mountaintop removal has caused in their community. Tonight, the Silverdocs world premiere of Henry Corra's "The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan" follows a search for Pvt. McKinley Nolan, who apparently went AWOL in Vietnam.
Also a World Premiere at Silverdocs is Stephen Marshall's "HolyWars." Marshall's film follows two religious fundamentalists through several years. Aaron is a fundamentalist Christian living the life of an impassioned Bible Belt missionary evangelical spreading the word around the world. Khalid Kelly, meanwhile, is a famous Irish Muslim convert who lives in London and is desperate to find an effective method to spread Islam throughout the world. In a room of like-minded Muslims, a consensus is reached that capitalism will die, and Islam is its only worthy replacement. Halfway through the film, Marshall encourages the two proselytizers to meet. What follows is a challenging discussion for both of the men, forcing them to rid themselves of their myopic outlooks if only for a few minutes. Aaron becomes inspired by the meeting, publishing a book, "Alone with a Jihadist." Kelly continues on with his life. Relatively unaffected by the meeting, he finds an enclave in Pakistan that lives under the strict Muslim Sharia law.
I spoke with Marshall about his unusual approach to the subject of religious extremism in a post-9/11 world after his film completed both of its Silverdocs screenings. He said that he set out to make a film about end-of-the-world rhetoric. "It started four years ago. The inception point was in 2006; Bush was still in power. The zeitgeist was focused on apocalyptic thinking. This was the original idea that got me the money to make the film. The question was: Could they make it happen? Could they make a self-fulfilling prophesy?" With the help of his producer Lisa Hsu, Marshall found a few religious people who thought that the end was nigh. A leading jihadist in Indonesia and a few Iranian subjects did not pan out for the story.
The two that stuck came to Marshall through persistence. In search of an American Christian missionary, very few were willing to be followed on camera. Aaron, it turned out, agreed to be taped. Khalid, who already had a strong political voice and stature, was difficult to get. Finally, Marshall recounted, Khalid came around to the idea. "It really started out of an argument we had. He said, 'You're asking all these questions. What do you think?' And I said, 'All this talk about Sharia law in London is ridiculous. It's unrealistic to do that; it would be much easier to do it in [a predominantly Muslim country].'" Khalid, who likes a good argument, felt he had met his match in Marshall.
Gaining respect of audiences who have seen the film has been a bit easier. Though professionals in the documentary world were quick to tell him that "HolyWars" is a pro-Christian film, audiences have been spurred on to intense debates. "Generally," Marshall says, "most people hate both characters...Muslims are often angry because it's another guy with a gun in his hand. [Evangelical] Christians often see Aaron as more radical than they are. But it does get a lot of debate going." Though he makes his films with his own audience in mind, an indie audience hot on atheism and agnosticism, Marshall has been pleased by the response to the film in Christian and Muslim religious communities. After True/False, Marshall took the film to a megachurch, where he screened it in state-of-the-art projection for 500 parishioners. What followed was a hearty inter-religious discussion. Marshall said he would love to take the film on the Christian circuit.
On trying something new to enhance conversation between Christians and Muslims, Marshall said, "We should be putting these people in a room. If we [documentarians] don't do it, who will? I want to see a conversation between Obama and Osama." By including this forced encounter, though, Marshall and his editor felt it was necessary to include the filmmaker in the film, to be self-reflexive about the film's role. After the encounter, Marshall simply follows the two. At a few moments, particularly while following Khalid as he sought out the Taliban, Marshall questioned himself for how close he was getting to his subject and what people would think. Ultimately though, he justified it by noting the ultimate result. "Reality TV has transformed how we look at documentaries. He's bad and she's the bitch. My goal was to understand the nuances of their characters." And for a film that has two protagonists with whom it is difficult to identify, "HolyWars" provides nuanced characters that provoke discussion and self-reflection.
Bryce J. Renninger, an indieWIRE contributor in the New York office, is also the shorts programmer for Newfest and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Studies at Rutgers University. He can be reached via Twitter.