Atheism has become so vogue these days that it's easy for those of us who consider ourselves secular or spiritual to fall into the trap of seeing organized religion only for its evils. I know this first-hand because it was how I framed the pitch for my new film, Holy Wars, when I took it around to producers in the fall of 2005. We were still deep in the Bush era and, if it wasn't enough to have evangelicals scaring the pants off American liberals, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was agitating for nuclear power and threatening to wipe Israel into oblivion. It all fed into my pitch, which went something like this:
War. Famine. Plagues. Natural disasters. The destruction of entire cities. The deaths of millions of people. These are the signs of imminent salvation for millions of Christians and Muslims around the world. In this country alone, 44 percent of American Christians claim to be certain or confident that Jesus is going to return to Earth for his Judgment in the next 50 years. That is to say, a great number of Americans would see events such as major terrorist attacks, and even nuclear war, as a net positive. The question I asked myself was this: just what percentage of global Muslims and Christians would we need to make the Biblical and Koranic apocalypse a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Now, my father has a favorite saying: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Given what I have experienced over the past five years, the master of the universe must have been rolling on the floor, because the film I set out to make and the one that makes its Oscar-qualifying premieres over the next two weeks bear almost nothing in common. But I learned a valuable lesson: the difference between them is the essence of the journey I have been on. I conceived a film driven by fear and ended up with one grounded in faith. And, as the wise men like to say, it has made all the difference.
My first shoot took me around the world to some of the hotbeds of religious radicalism: Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Indonesia and the US and UK. Each of my characters (mullahs, pastors, jihadists, evangelicals) were people who believed fervently that the words of their chosen holy book were the words of God. And they had created their lives around that belief. One of the core planks of their worldview was that they were involved in a fight against evil in the world, and that Christianity and Islam were ultimately going to have it out before Jesus returned and declared their respective faith the true religion of God.
To prove the danger that these (relatively few) people posed, I covered two very troubling cases of religious violence. The first was the eruption of Christian-Muslim fighting on the Indonesian island of Ambon in 1999, which saw over 5,000 people killed. The two sides had lived peacefully for as long as anyone could remember, but after a minor traffic accident involving a Muslim driver and a Christian pedestrian, recent political resentments flared up, and soon troops had to be called in to separate the spear- and machete-armed warriors. A nun we met with in Ambon recalled that "you could hear the minarets calling the people to come and fight, and for our own part, the priests were singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' sending the men out to battle."
What could be our traffic accident, the thing that could actually set off a modern-day holy war? For that, I visited and shot the al-Aqsa mosque, which sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. For evangelical Christians, Jesus cannot return to Earth until a new temple is built on the Mount. But to destroy the mosque, the third most holy site in Islam, would certainly provoke a global Muslim uprising. We saw a minor glimpse of this when Ariel Sharon visited the mosque in 2000, triggering the al-Aqsa intifada that left 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians dead.
So you get the picture. And we seemed to be getting everything we needed, until a few months after I returned from the shoot and we watched the first edits. All we had was a collection of people spewing anger, fear and paranoia into the camera. Worse, most of their rhetoric was harnessed by what the wonderful researcher Chip Berlet calls "triumphalism," the belief that you must follow one way or be damned. And in our case, that meant damned to hell.
At the same time that I was beginning to feel the creeping fear that I had basically manufactured a work that had no real value except to scare my audience, something began to change in America. Bush's time was ending, and Obama began to rise. And the film began to change. By this I mean that two characters began to emerge from the group as willing participants in a kind of social experiment built around their being forced to confront each other. And from this, 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.
I don't want to say too much more about the story because there is a wonderful and completely unexpected surprise that takes place in Holy Wars. But I will say that this experience has taught me so much about the faiths that we embrace as narratives to guide our lives, because I was able to witness that it is religion stripped down to its basic aspects, its core morals, its simplest teachings, that grants human beings that bridge across a seemingly eternal divide. We all know that the fighting has nothing to do with religion per se; it's always land or money or resources, and religion is used as the whipping rod. But that can only happen if religious leaders obscure the basic tenets -- the golden rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us -- behind laws and prejudices. We know this. But fundamentalists need to be given the space and love to find their way back to those simplest teachings, because those are the words I follow. And they appear in all the great spiritual works found on our planet.
A final note. I wrote at the start that this became a film about faith, and that certainly is true for the two characters, Khalid Kelly and Aaron Taylor, whom I followed for four years. But it was also about my faith. I am always a little weary of describing my "religious" beliefs. I have traveled all over this planet and seen so many forms of evidence for what I call God, an all-seeing force who helps shape the narratives of our lives so that we can learn and evolve as immortal souls. But no experience has been more challenging to this belief in a "God" than the making of this film. So many times it seemed dead, a total failure not just for me but all my funders and producers. And it went on and on. But in the end, events kept conspiring to prop up this film and make it even more relevant to this time than the one I had originally envisioned. I don't know what to call that thing that moves through us and makes us all characters in a wonderfully (or dare I say perfectly) crafted three-act drama, but I don't believe it's random. And I know it wasn't all to do with me -- because that is what I call "God."
WATCH the trailer for Holy Wars:
Holy Wars opens in Los Angeles on July 30 at ArcLight Hollywood, and in New York on August 6 at IFC Center. Check listings for screening times at http://www.documentary.org/docuweeks2010.