Holy Wars (2010) – A Film Review
Stephen Marshall’s documentary spends time with two religious extremists over a three-year period. The first, Aaron D. Taylor, is an American Christian evangelist who has taken it upon himself in the past to spread his version of the “Good News” in parts of west Africa and Pakistan where Islam is the predominant belief. The other is Khalid Kelly, an Irishman who converted to Islam whilst in a Saudi Arabian prison and who now fervently believes in the supremacy of Sharia law and the need for jihad. Now, there are two ways that such a documentary is typically going to cut. Either it will hold its subjects up to ridicule simply by highlighting the ludicrous nature of their world views or it will give them a sympathetic enough airing and then bring a degree of intellectual rigour to finding any substance or otherwise behind all of the silly rhetoric. Interestingly, though, while the film does seem to begin with the former in mind, a face-to-face meeting between the two subjects leads to an unexpected development, which this review does not wish to spoil.
At the same time, the problem with this documentary is that the guiding hand of its director is just too apparent. Not only does he place himself in some of the scenes (not least one where he is worrying that the Pakistani police are on their way to question him), but he provides the sort of voice-over narrations clearly intended to get the viewer to see the film from a particular and rather questionable perspective. For example, we see clips of Mr. Kelly protesting outside British police stations, meeting a deported radical cleric in Lebanon, attending a social gathering of loud-mouthed hotheads in London, and poncing around Pakistan with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Clearly, it all seems to fit into some “useful fool” narrative, yet Mr. Marshall never goes near asking thorny questions in this regard. Rather, he lets the naive Mr. Taylor be the underweight challenger to Mr. Kelly’s confident, well-rehearsed, but generally ludicrous outpourings.
Essentially, what needs to be borne in mind here is that just because someone can correctly identify some of the causes of the problems in the Middle East and Central Asia, it does not make them in any way right in terms of what the solutions are. Simply put, there are some glaring gaps in a film that seems primarily interested in giving American right-wingers of the tea-drinking kind a subtle bitch-slap. Nothing wrong with that, some might argue, but the work offers little new really to the liberal-minded thinker. Sneakily worth watching in a voyeuristic feel-superior sense, but hard to make the case for why Holy Wars amounts to much more than that. Instead, having a read of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley would be a better use of one’s time.