For a gay filmmaker, filming in Saudi Arabia presents two serious challenges: filming is forbidden in the country and homosexuality is punishable by death. For filmmaker Parvez Sharma, however, these were risks he had to assume as he embarked on his Hajj pilgrimage, a journey considered the greatest accomplishment and aspiration within Islam, his religion. On his journey Parvez aims to look beyond 21st-century Islam’s crises of religious extremism, commercialism and sectarian battles. He brings back the story of the religion like it has never been told before, having endured the biggest jihad there is: the struggle with the self.
“Wrenching… gritty… surreal and transcendent; Visceral and Abstract… a true act of courage and hope”
The Hollywood Reporter
“With poetic simplicity… a delicately personal story and a call to action”
“Goes Undercover… A Rare Look… Sure to be Controversial”
THE DAILY BEAST
“Brave… An unprecedented exploration of Islam”
“Powerful, Illuminating… a remarkable examination of contemporary Islam”
“Spectacular… Emotional core stands out…”
“Shocking and Courageous…”
“A first-hand look at the Amazing Muslim Race…”
Globe and Mail
“A deeply personal film about faith and forgiveness”
THE TORONTO STAR
“Deeply personal… High Drama… A protest against Saudi Arabia…”
“A perilous journey”
The Indian Express
“The disgusting act of homosexuality… an attack on Islam”
“Nonfiction-filmmaking does not get much gutsier than Sharma video-documenting his hajj… Bold and stingingly truthful, A Sinner in Mecca is very highly recommended”
In A Jihad for Love, filmmaker Parvez Sharma gave voice to Muslims around the world who are struggling to reconcile their religion and their homosexuality, and was condemned as an apostate for it. The Indian-born, New York-based director upped the personal risk-taking when he traveled to Saudi Arabia for his second documentary, defying bans on photography to turn the (cameraphone) lens on himself and fellow pilgrims during the annual hajj. A Sinner in Mecca is a suitably messy mix of the gritty and the surreal, the wrenching and the transcendent, from the midst of the trek to Islam’s holiest site.
As an openly gay man and as a surreptitious chronicler, Sharma brings defiance, humility and anguish to his participation in the pilgrimage, and captures remarkable footage of an event that’s massive — among the world’s largest gatherings — and off-limits to non-Muslims. If the video diary aspects of the doc can feel like selfie overload, the sense of self-dramatizing indulgence is undercut by the very real dangers and emotional turmoil that shape Sharma’s experience.
Having stirred up hate mail and threats even before its Hot Docs premiere, the film is set for broadcast in Europe. Continued travels on the fest circuit are assured, with theatrical distribution likely given the subject’s topicality and the filmmaker’s daring.
Opening the doc with a horrifying chat-room exchange with a friend in Saudi Arabia, Sharma later uses brief animation sequences to illustrate the historical backdrop of what he considers a religion divided, born of peace but “hijacked by a minority.” A Sunni who grew up with exposure to Sufi mysticism, he repeatedly emphasizes his need to separate the Islam he loves from the official Saudi variety, Wahhabism, which he’s not alone in viewing as intolerant and oppressive.
Armed with an iPhone and two small cameras disguised as phones, Sharma was one of an estimated 2.9 million pilgrims who participated in the 2011 hajj, an undertaking that’s required of the faithful at least once in their lives. In images that are sometimes impressionistic and grainy, he provides a strong sense of the rough conditions that make a week feel much longer: sleeplessness, lack of water and trash-strewn grounds are just the beginning. Nearing the Sacred Mosque, Masjid al-Haram, and its central structure, the Kaaba, there are hellish walks through long tunnels and, finally, a dizzying swarm of humanity. Pushed, shoved, bruised, Sharma feels his faith evaporating.
His filmed interactions with other pilgrims are limited; mainly this is an internal journey, and Sharma’s monologue addresses himself and Allah. But he does include audio recordings (with altered voices) of two men who tell harrowing stories. One, a Pakistani, admits that he took part in an honor killing.
Both visceral and abstract, Sharma’s footage in the mosque is striking, whether he’s in the crush of that mass of pilgrims or overlooking the praying multitudes from a higher level of the structure. (Throughout the film, the varied score by Sajid Akbar and M.E. Manning is helpful, never intrusive.)
Sharma is alert to the Western-style merch and signage, including posters celebrating the royal family, that line the road to Mecca, not to mention the mosque-adjacent shopping mall. His snide comments on these commercial intrusions are welcome bursts of humor amid the doleful self-questioning that characterizes much of Sharma’s voiceover narration.
In particular, he’s wracked with guilt over his mother, a poet who never accepted his sexuality, and whose death by cancer he attributes in part to shame. With Husain Akbar handling the cinematography in India, the film includes visits to the town where Sharma once lived with her, and his husband joins him from New York to explore that country. Footage of their wedding day and of their life together contrasts the secret lives that many gay Muslims are forced to lead, if they’re lucky enough not to be imprisoned or, like the man whose death was witnessed by Sharma’s Saudi chat-room friend, beheaded.
That Sharma’s husband is an atheist underscores the aloneness of not just his hajj but his ongoing quest to find his place in Islam. In keeping with the very nature of faith as something that can’t be explained or justified, even as he questions and doubts, he proves thoroughly devoted to tradition, including the unfortunate and gruesome ritual sacrifice of a goat that ends the hajj and is shown onscreen.
Why he believes he’s “a better Muslim” after the hajj is unclear; his epiphany, though obviously the result of a profound ordeal, is finally stated rather than fully communicated. But Sharma’s hope for reform amid extremist currents in Islam couldn’t be more evident. ( Sheri Linden, Hollywoodreporter.com)
INTERVISTA di Safa Samiezade’-Yazd su The Guardian:
A Sinner in Mecca: gay film-maker on ‘a hajj of defiance’
Parvez Sharma went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and covertly filmed what he describes as ‘the frontline of Islam’ in order to explore what it means to be a Muslim
“Islam is at war with itself, and I have fought hard not to be a casualty.” Vulnerable yet self-deprecating, film-maker Parvez Sharma sets out his position in the new autobiographical documentary A Sinner in Mecca, which premiered last week at HotDocs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. Parvez, who is gay and Muslim, has had death threats for making the film, leading to increased security at the festival screenings.
The film explores Sharma’s complicated relationship with Islam as he embarks on the hajj, the devotional pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime. Sharma, who was born in India but is based in New York, sets out to answer the question: is it possible for someone like him to be a good Muslim? “I need evidence that my faith is strong enough to survive this journey,” he explains early in the film, which was recorded on a cameraphone and two smuggled-in cameras. Photography is forbidden at sacred sites on the hajj, while homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
Yet as the film progresses from Sharma’s personal essay on the inner struggles of a gay Muslim to a political examination of Wahhabism’s hardline manipulation of contemporary Islam, audiences witness firsthand his intimate struggles of uncertainty and self-doubt against the backdrops of religious extremism, commercialisation and sectarian battles – all of which continue to poison modern understanding of Islam for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“If anything,” he says, “my faith seems to disappear in this very place.” What he confronts is “the frontline of Islam” – never-before-filmed streets dominated by peace-loving pilgrims, and a government-supported bastardisation of the religion that bears little resemblance to the faiths of most Muslims. It’s a Saudi Arabia never seen before on film, one that its secretive monarchy doesn’t want the world to discover.
With poetic simplicity, A Sinner in Mecca explores what it means to believe in the face of religious manipulation and government corruption. Sharma’s bravery is not that he is a gay man in Mecca, but that he is a Muslim questioning and reclaiming his faith from the authorities exporting it as violent conservatism. The voice he gives to the complexities of contemporary Islam remind us never to fall for the simplified narrative, especially one that forces you to look at a quarter of the world’s population through a singular lens.
Despite the extremists, the humanity and dignity of Islam’s majority continue to be the only things that will help its believers push the religion forward. Sharma’s film is both a delicately personal story and an urgent call to action, showing that reformation is not just phase on the path to modernity – it’s the only hope a faith has to save itself in an increasingly harsh world.
What was it like to return home to the States and re-enter everyday life after making this profound journey?
It was very difficult. I felt like I had been on another planet. That’s the kind of effect Mecca has on you. When I came back, I was haunted by dreams of the Kaaba [the sacred cuboid building in the middle of Mecca] and of how transformative it had been in my life. The Kaaba is essentially what gave me the strength during the hajj to keep carrying on. It’s a very harsh pilgrimage – it’s about faith, but it’s also about surrender.
Filming sacred sites is prohibited in Mecca, so you had to create this film undercover. What precautions did you take?
As far as safety goes, there wasn’t much I could do, except to go back into the closet – as a gay man, and as a film-maker. I just had to go with what I hoped was some kind of divine intervention that would allow me to do what I was going to do. I tried to be as discreet as I possibly could. A sequence from my first night at the Kaaba is an interesting example, because I rubber-banded the iPhone around my neck and just let it run. That space where you run around the Kaaba is a violent space, and no one has ever seen images of the Kaaba like that, from that close proximity.
At one point, you mention a fellow pilgrim who told you he was glad you can’t film in Mecca, because he doesn’t want the West to see what it really looks like.
It’s garish. It’s unforgivable what the Saudi government is doing. It’s a systematic, deliberate obliteration, and they’re carrying it out with great success. They’re building seven-star hotels and hugely expensive apartments all around the Kaaba, just diminishing the presence of this holiest structure in Islam. It’s a destruction of Islamic history, and it’s being carried out with a guillotine, with very few questions from Muslims around the world.
You talk in the film about being there with the Shia pilgrims, and how you’re all seen as infidels, because Shia Islam isn’t recognized by the Saudi government.
I felt a strange and unique affinity with the Shia pilgrims that were on the journey with me. I was afraid and I came out to my group leader as a Sunni. He said, “We Shia welcome you, but this were the other way around – a Shia trying to get into a Sunni hajj group – it would never happen.” I realised in a special way that I was one with these outliers of Islam, and that we shared our outsider status. It was a blessing, and I call it our hajj of defiance, because that is exactly what it is.
Do you feel pressure to address gay issues within Islam in your work?
I was done with homosexuality and Islam with my previous film [A Jihad for Love]. This is a film about the change that needs to happen within Islam. It’s a direct challenge that has never been mounted to the Saudi monarchy. It’s a call to action to all Muslims to take back singular authority over their faith. It’s only the believers who have the power to transform the religion – and the transformation is urgent. We’re losing time, and we need to be able to do this fast, before the destruction becomes complete.
So if real change has to come from within, what can non-Muslims do to help?
They can help by trying to learn the essential fact that the bastardised versions have no resemblance to Islam as it was originally intended. They can help by becoming allies. So engaging with Muslims in ways that are more sympathetic and understanding. The siege that contemporary Muslims are facing is what non-Muslims need to realise.