Film

Review: The Last Sermon Seeks to Understand how Religion Becomes Radicalized

In April 2003, filmmakers Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem were shooting a documentary about a blues music bar in Tel Aviv called Mike’s Place, that just happened to be located next door to the American embassy. Part of the resulting film’s (Blues by the Beach) message was intended to show that there are pockets of fun and normality in the Middle East, beyond the perceived constant threat of terrorism and endless war. But filming in the bar was cut short when a suicide bombing took place, killing many and leaving Baxter partially paralyzed on his left side with remnants of “organic shrapnel” remaining in his arm. (There were actually two bombers, but only one of the bombs went off, leading some to believe that the second bomber had a change of heart.)

The Last Sermon

Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Fourteen years later, in The Last Sermon, Baxter (Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X) and Faudem decide to explore the wider contributing factors of global terrorism by attempting to interview the family members of the two bombers (who have since become martyrs among terrorists) to see if they knew their relatives were going to do this and how they feel about their actions. Unlike many docs where the filmmakers stay out of the way of the story, Baxter in particular seems insistent on inserting himself and the bombing itself into every aspect of the film, which doesn’t feel as entirely disruptive as you might think it would be—until it is in rather dramatic fashion.

The other goal of the film is to remind viewers—and some of the people Baxter interviews—of the true meaning of being a Muslim by reciting the final passages of the Quran, one that speaks in strong terms against blood revenge or the superiority of one religion over another. He wants to understand how such sacred and profound and peaceful text has gotten warped and radicalized throughout the years. The movie gets into a bit of Baxter’s personal history as something of a fanatical Christian, so he’s certainly familiar with the process of conversion. He was never asked to commit acts of violence for his faith, though that doesn’t mean Christian-based religions haven’t done so otherwise, something he seems to gloss over.

The Last Sermon veers away from the thoughts on terrorism frequently as Baxter and Faudem take a look at the refugee situation in parts of Europe where nationalism is not only alive but quite threatening to anyone worshipping in a mosque. And sometimes those in power mirror these prejudices to an almost comical effect, particularly in a scene where an anti-immigrant German political candidate sings Baxter an especially racist song; it’s a moment that seems right out of a Borat movie, except it’s scarily real.

In the film’s final act, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing occurs (a tragedy that killed 22 people attending an Ariana Grande concert). The event hits Baxter particularly hard, especially since there were so many children at the show. Shortly after the event, he meets with a leader at the mosque where one of the bombers was a member, and despite the fact that a solidarity rally is happening when he visits—a chance for the local Muslim community to show they are against the Manchester attack—Baxter uses the opportunity to verbally attack the leader and the group in a truly ugly way that undercuts many of the messages he’s attempting to get across in the doc. All of his attempts at understanding what might turn someone to radicalism go out the door, and what remains is a frustrated, beleaguered man who probably still suffers from PTSD. It’s one of the most emotionally real moments of the film, but it also runs the risk of souring viewers to the entire process in which Baxter has spent the film.

The Last Sermon also features Baxter trying to do the most amount of good, especially when he gets among the refugees. He’s a blues harmonica player going way back, and he pulls the instrument out any time he comes across someone making music. Being the old hippie that he is, he decides to have a harmonica company ship instruments to these camps so Baxter can hand them out to the children and bring a small amount of joy and music into their lives. It sounds ridiculous when we hear about it, but when you see the moment happen, it feels right. Ultimately, the movie stays true to its ideals and mission, despite a few diversions and unpleasant exchanges. I won’t give away whether the filmmakers achieve their goals to get to the families of the bombers, but at a certain point, even that doesn’t seem to matter as much. I have mixed feelings about the film’s outcome, but that’s almost always better than finding an effort predictable and safe.

The film is available beginning Tuesday on VOD.

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