“I ask you, Prophet: Is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?”
Journey is at the heart of every good documentary. There’s the external, physical journey to the darkest, unexplored territories of the subject, a frontal assault on cliche and received opinion, and copious notes to bring back home. But it’s the internal journey, as many filmmakers have noted and interwoven into their narratives, that is the more crucial one. What they learn about themselves along the way often ends up being the heart of their stories.
Parvez Sharma, writer/director of 2007’s A Jihad for Love, not only understands this dual journey intimately, he drives the point home to an affecting degree with his latest documentary, A Sinner in Mecca, premiering at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.
In A Jihad for Love, Sharma made clear by its title that the concept of jihad, used by the news media almost exclusively to mean “holy war” and referring to violent acts perpetrated by extremist Muslims, can also be a concept of personal struggle, and one that can be in the pursuit of acceptance. It was a risky, controversial film that earned the gay, Muslim filmmaker not only international accolades but also death threats. “For Muslims like me, Islam has been a faith of fear,” narrates the filmmaker.
In his new film, Sharma, iPhone in hand, not unlike a Christian missionary with a missal goes on pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca where filming is outlawed, to show his devotion and cleanse his sins. But his pilgrimage is also to find the answer to his question: Is there a place for him, a gay man, in Islam? As the film begins with a horrifying, grainy video of a public beheading of a suspected gay man in Saudi Arabia (sent to him by a gay chat room buddy inside the country and desperate to get out) things are not looking too promising. It sets the stage, somewhat falsely, for what you might expect to be a documentary on the perils of being an openly gay Muslim in the Middle East. But what follows is more of a lonely and dispiriting journey of one gay man to the holy land, less dangerous to his safety than dangerous to his faith.
His searching journey takes him from his home in New York City (where we meet his husband, Dan, and assorted friends) to his childhood home in India and finally to Mecca, home to Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba a cuboid building at the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al Masjid alHaram. Sharma surreptitiously records on his iPhone the ritual process of hajj, beginning with moving, almost by magnetic force, to the Kaaba and circling it several times before moving on to other rituals. The highangle shots of literally hundreds of thousands of piously garbed pilgrims ritually circling the Kaaba is one of the most striking and aweinspiring in the film, recalling Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 Koyaanisqatsi in its bird’s eye POV of humanity’s swirling patterns of ritual movement.
But within Mecca, and what is the true, dark heart of the film, Sharma discovers something that indelibly taints his pilgrimage. Not even 1000 feet from the Kaaba is a glitzy shopping mall filled with Starbucks and other global chains. His narration makes clear his disappointment and bewilderment, even as he enters the Starbucks and partakes of the global ritual of the venti mochaccino. How is it possible, he asks himself, and his audience, that 21st century capitalism’s tentacles know no boundaries and even cannot be kept out of one of the world’s holiest sites? The answer is simple: the Saudi Royal Family, who owns virtually all land in Saudi Arabia, including Mecca, views the reverence and preservation of historic sites as akin to idol worship and has bulldozed most of Mecca for development, including centuries-old cemeteries containing the decedents of the prophets of the religion. “Saudi Arabia has demolished the history of Islam,” says Sharma over images of construction equipment and bulldozers preparing plots of land for another commercial enterprise. It’s an instructive and important point that Parvez stresses for non Muslims: Wahaabism, the form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, has now overtaken the religion’s public face. “I have never doubted my faith in Allah but I have no faith in this Saudi version of Islam and my need to separate the two is now critical.”
Avoiding a spoiler, what Parvez Sharma comes to realize during his pilgrimage to Mecca is a major turning point in his life and his faith. From what we see, and despite what the trailer represents, his life was never in danger, despite the risky business of filming within Mecca. He gets into some stressful situations with the endless crowds and the possibility of a stampede, as well as a scary scene of water distribution to dangerously thirsty pilgrims. He records a conversation with a pilgrim on a bus who makes a frightening admission to him concerning his participation in an honor killing, but the moment seems more like a footnote.
Sharma’s constant filming of his own face and his reactions to what he’s seeing give the film a sometimes annoying “selfie” perspective. Granted, even though the documentary is about his own journey, I kept wishing that he would turn his camera around to face outwards. It would have been interesting and even enlightening to see some interviews with other pilgrims in Mecca on what exactly their views are on homosexuality, extremism and other issues raised by his project.
Nonetheless, A Sinner in Mecca is an important and rare film that discusses Islam from the perspective of a gay man who wants to find his place within it, despite the threats of violence and death that have suppressed many of his fellow Muslim gays into hiding. Contemporary discussions in Western media of the place of gays and lesbians within religious practice are now almost uniformly negative, so it’s remarkable that Parvez Sharma has found a way to open up the contours of that discussion to address the problems of violence and persecution, but also the riskier battle for inclusion and acceptance.