THE LAST SERMON (Jack Baxter & Joshua Faudem, 2019)
Opens in theaters, VOD, and virtually December 15
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a white over a Black, or a Black over a white except by righteousness and piety,” Jack Baxter says from his hospital bed at the beginning of the deeply personal documentary The Last Sermon, quoting from the Prophet Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon delivered in March 632. “That’s the essence of Islam . . . Not murder.”
It was a long road to The Last Sermon for Baxter and his codirector, Joshua Faudem. In September 1993, Baxter was trying to interview Louis Farrakhan for what would become his controversial documentary Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X when he was introduced to the prophet’s Last Sermon by an Arab man. A decade later, in April 2003, Baxter went to Israel to make a documentary about accused Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti, only to find out that someone else was already doing that. While taking a walk along the beach the night before he was going to go back to the States, he heard blues music coming from a bar and discovered Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv nightclub, next to the US Embassy, where people of all races, religions, and ethnicities gathered to drink, speak in English, and listen to live blues.
Baxter teamed up with Faudem and began shooting a documentary about the club when the narrative drastically changed: On April 30, 2003, two radicalized British nationals who had entered Israel through the Gaza Strip went to Mike’s Place on a suicide bombing mission, killing Ran Baron, Dominique Caroline Hass (who they had interviewed for the film), and Yanai Weiss in the bar and seriously wounding Baxter, leaving him partially paralyzed and with “organic shrapnel” in him — tiny bits of one of the bombers. Their 2004 documentary, Blues by the Beach, ended up being very different from its original intention.
In 2015, Baxter and Faudem published the graphic novel Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv. And then, in 2016, they set out to make a film about the refugee crisis in Europe but decided to also try to meet the families, now living in England, of the two suicide bombers. The Last Sermon follows Baxter, who grew up Irish Catholic in the Bronx and likes to play the harmonica, and Faudem, a former Israeli checkpoint guard, as they travel to Macedonia, Serbia, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Paris, and London, visiting refugee camps, mosques, and other locations, speaking with politicians, religious leaders, journalists, musicians, scholars, fashion designers on a photo shoot, a graffiti artist, and an anti-refugee singer-songwriter, as they try to track down the suicide bombers’ families with the help of an investigator.
Baxter notes that documentarians are not supposed to be part of the story, but he explains early on that he is breaking that rule. He admits he’s not clear about what he is seeking and hasn’t planned what he will say to the families if they agree to meet with him. Cinematographer Avi Levi, who served in the Israeli army with Faudem, often focuses on Baxter deep in thought, reflecting on what he’s seeing and what he’s remembering, as his purpose grows stronger the closer he gets to his goal. Baxter, who sports impressive curly white locks, might be a peacenik — he is most often seen wearing a black T-shirt with the English word “Peace” on it, with the Hebrew above and the Arabic below — but he turns ever-more-ornery after all that he has witnessed on the way to London.
One of the most moving interactions is at the Grand Mosque of Paris with radicalization consultant Mohammed Chirani, who works with arrested terrorists. “Religion is the pretext,” he says. “There’s the ideology and there’s the religion. If ideology wants to gain power, it clothes itself with religion, with the sacred, and says, ‘Everything you’re doing, if you murder, or if you commit terrorist attacks, it’s a jihad, an honorable action. You do it in the name of G-d so you can go to paradise.’ So it’s a perversion. They need to deconstruct to separate ideology from religion and act on their spirituality.”
Baxter doesn’t believe that the terrorists can, or should, be saved, that they are blatant murderers who cannot be reformed. Chriani responds, “For me, radicalization is a combination of ideology, which is the manipulation of religion, due to a breach inside the individual, a failure of meaning and identity. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? . . . They have a right to redemption.” Baxter is not so sure. It’s the turning point of the documentary, as Baxter starts getting visibly angrier the rest of the way. “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? . . . They have a right to redemption” are, of course, also the questions Baxter must answer for himself.
Winner of the Best Documentary Feature and the Truth Seeker Award at the 2020 Queens World Film Festival, The Last Sermon is an intimately powerful, beautifully photographed exploration of radicalization, bigotry, hate, PTSD, and humankind’s basic desire for peace but intrinsic propensity to fight. It takes us inside one man’s very personal journey, baring his raw, exposed emotions as he tries to find resolutions that might never be able to satisfy the gaping void in his life, something we can all understand. It’s often painful to watch, but it’s also necessary, especially in these dark times. Shalom. Peace. سلام.