Our Summer In Tehran | Agnus Dei| Holy wars

Justine Shapiro |Alejandra Sánchez | Stephen Marshall

USA, 2010, 59 min. |France, Mexico, 2010, 87 min. | Canada, USA, 2010, 84 min.

We are all familiar with newspaper headlines such as: “Iran warns the West that Istanbul meeting is last chance for nuclear deal” and “Buying up the world: The coming wave of Chinese takeovers”.1 They try to inform us on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and China’s economic ones, in the meantime fuelling fears about Iran’s pugnacity and China’s growing economic strength.

One of the everlasting confusions in defining documentary film is how it relates to journalism. Both are generally believed to inform us about the real world out there. However – and this is already going subjective – documentary filmmakers are granted more poetic license that journalists. There is another important difference though. Again in general – the quotes above hopefully illustrate this – journalism reflects sentiments on a macro level where documentary filmmakers often search for the specific.


With respect to the quotes above, I will here focus on one topic in this respect: the enemy. Today’s enemies are no longer the Communists, Russia or any other modern nation-state but, going by the papers and TV news, terrorists, and more specifically Afghan, Iranian and Al Qaida terrorists. But there are also enemies of other kinds, such as the Chinese, who are taking over the global economy. And in addition, there are smaller groups of enemies, sometime very localized: the Catholic Church, the Farq movement, Hamas. They may not be enemies of our nation or our community directly, but we regard them with hostility, because we do not know or understand their goals, motives or means.

Journalism rarely bothers to make us understand. Documentaries do, or at least they can, and they try. And it is exactly this step away from the general to the specific that can help us gain insight and might make us not only less afraid but also open to attitudes other than animosity and hostility, and eventually solutions other than war or combat. As Jerome D. Frank and Andrei Y. Mellville put it: “The image of the enemy and the process of change”2 – the group and not the individual is the unit of survival and we regard members of other groups with fear and distrust. But we must work out realistic perceptions of each other if we want to be able to let go of stereotypes. The group may be the unit of survival; the individual is the unit for mutual understanding.

A striking example in this respect is Aaron Taylor, one of the main characters in Stephen Marshall’s film Holy Wars [see also other critique, page 35] Marshall followed him, Christian evangelist, missionary worker and author of a pamphlet stating that “Now is a time for war”. He also followed the Muslim, Khaled Kelly.


After having tailed them for a year and half, Marshall decides to have the two confront each other – where Kelly slowly overpowers him rhetorically;. Upon arrival, despite the chill, Kelly takes off his jacket and we see his shirt: Soldier of Allah. 1-0. After they introduce themselves and discuss the meaning of their names, we see Kelly starting off with questions about the differences between Jesus and Mohammed. In the sequence that follows, Kelly finds a hole in Taylor’s defence when he has no straightforward answer on how to solve problems like rape, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality. He knows of course, because Sharia has an answer to it all. 2-0.

And if you don’t think murder is right, how about the US bombings on Iraq and Afghanistan, killing innocent people? KO! And where Taylor not only starts but also dares to doubt himself, Kelly is frenzied in his conviction and absolute righteousness. Taylor begins to see that what makes sense to him and his Christian community members is not a matter of course for Muslims. When Taylor does nothing to hide his amazement about Kelly’s plea for Sharia law and the killing of certain criminals, Kelly hooks him: is it OK to bomb and kill innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan? The confrontation makes Taylor realize that Christians like him need to try and understand why Muslims like Kelly think the way they do.

The confrontation produces a change in Taylor’s attitude and he dares question his – hitherto – deep rooted and rock steady conviction. Back home he runs into a wall when his family, and especially his father and fatherin-law turn out to be unyielding. In a talk with his ‘mentor’ we are given a clue about their obstinacy: what helps to open up to other points of view is stepping out of your comfort zone, for example by traveling abroad (which is something Taylor has done but his ‘fathers’ have not).

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