Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Stephen Marshall--'HolyWars'

Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Stephen Marshall, director/writer of HolyWars.

Synopsis: Touching down in four hotbeds of religious fundamentalism--Pakistan,
Lebanon, UK and heartland America--HolyWars goes behind the scenes of the 1,400-year-old conflict between Islam and Christianity. The film follows a danger-seeking Christian missionary
and a radical Muslim Irish convert, both of whom believe in an apocalyptic battle, after which their religion will ultimately rule the world. Tracking their lives from the onset of the "War on Terror" to the election of Barack Obama, HolyWars shows that even the most radical of believers can be transformed by our changing world.




IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Stephen Marshall: I began as a self-taught video artist shooting art and dance films in Toronto. A chance offer to shoot a cross-country Land Rover race in Belize landed me in a crack house
with an inexplicably articulate "shoeshine" technician named Robert Pitts, who not only deconstructed the lie of eco-tourism but also ruminated on the nature of addiction (cocaine, television) and the essence of being a street gambler. I got back with the footage, raised a few hundred thousand dollars to tour the world to produce a global "video magazine" called Channel Zero, and within a year we had our first issue and the Village Voice wrote that we revolutionized television. Since then I've directed music videos, short films and now three features. HolyWars is my second doc feature.


IDA: What inspired you to make HolyWars?

SM: We actually started near the end of the second Bush administration. Religious fundamentalism was so prevalent those days that I started thinking about the sheer size of their numbers and the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy. More specifically, if enough people in the world believe that Biblical or Koranic apocalypse is imminent (or just plausible), can they make it come true? Considering the reality that at minimum, 50 percent of followers of each religion believe
it is a predetermined destiny for us, we're talking about billions of people. But I had never seen any kind of mainstream, televisual or cinematic attempt to bring these people together... or to even really understand the nature of this 1,400-year feud. So that was an inspiration. 
We were also interested in this whole notion of fundamentalism. We always see systems like shariah law as radical and nearly fascistic. But what I learned while shooting in Iraq after the fall of Saddam was that for many Muslims, liberalism and democracy were driven by the same kind of zero-sum fanatical zeal by their proponents--especially after the wholesale destruction of Baghdad
in the name of freedom. Or, as the operation was once called, Enduring Freedom. So we definitely were interested in the whole Clash of Civilizations thesis and whether our film could take a behind-the-scenes look at that (somewhat flawed) idea.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SM: The hardest part of filming HolyWars was gaining access and trust of the characters. They knew I came from a secular background, and even a left liberal one. So gaining trust was hard. And I did that by spending a lot of time just talking through their positions and showing that I had done my homework, that I understood their books and the teachings and was
not interested in bashing them, but rather trying to understand how they will impact my life. They liked that.
More trying was my attempts to get Khalid Kelly to just chill in front of the camera. For him, this exercise was only valuable if he was propagating the word of Islam. I would try to tell him that we could not have a film with him just staring in the camera, attacking Christianity and the West for two hours, that the audience needed to have a vehicle into his life...into his humanity--something, anything, they could relate to, and that this would help communicate his message. But he wasn't having it. "I didn't do this to be part of some popularity contest," he'd say. But then, after one very heated discussion in which he pressed me to articulate my own beliefs on the question of implementing sharia law in the UK (I told him to go take over a small country like Yemen and build a sharia law theme park, and then we could all make an informed decision), he seemed to soften and trust me more. And the next trip, I was in his house filming one of the key scenes with him and his son, Osama. 


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production,
production and post-production processes?

SM: We started with six characters in six countries (US, UK, Iran, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan) on four continents, and the film was sizing up to be a kind of fast-paced polemic about the dangers of what Chip Berlet calls "triumphalism"--the notion that your system is best, necessary, destined to govern the world. But as we completed the initial stage of photography, Bush's time was ending and Obama began to rise. And the film began to change: Two characters began to emerge from the group and a new theme of potential reconciliation between Holy Warriors took shape. I think it had a whiff of the zeitgeist about it, and we couldn't ignore it. And it forced us to rethink the entire film and shoot for an additional two and a half years. But it brought us to the more relevant version we have today. 


IDA:  As you've screened HolyWars--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SM: The most surprising thing at first was that some people thought it was a pro-Christian film. Several would inevitably ask if our editor was Christian! Which is so funny because our editor was Dan Swietlik (AnInconvenient Truth; SiCKO), and he couldn't be further from a religious propagandist. But what these reactions were revealing was that while most people can watch a sports doc about two players without thinking the editors were rooting for one (the one who does better) all along, that the film is a tool of vérité exposition for the life of those people, it wasn't the same for ours. Religion just touches so many buttons, and even the most astute
viewers often came from this very tribal, dualistic place that inhibited their ability to see it as an anthropological story with two very different and yet unplanned outcomes. Interestingly, as we have moved out of the Obama honeymoon, people have cited that reaction far less.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SM: I'm a sucker for Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost; Some Kind of Monster), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line; The Fog of War), Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground; Waste Land) and then the classics: Harlan County, U.S.A.;
Manufacturing Consent; Hearts and Minds; Twist of Faith; Hearts of
; Capturing The Friedmans; Dig!; Lake of Fire; The Kid Stays in the Picture.

HolyWars will be screening July 30
through August 5 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and August 6 through 12 the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for HolyWars in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for HolyWars in New York, click here.