A Gay Filmmaker Risks Death For His ‘Hajj Of Defiance’: ‘A Sinner In Mecca’ Review

Posted on March 6, 2016 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

A film that opens with the execution of an Indonesian woman, in the holy city of Medina, is bound to be an uncomfortable one – that said, Parvez Sharma’s highly anticipated ‘A Sinner In Mecca‘, which I happened to catch at the I View World film festival in Delhi, is well worth a watch

Travelling to the “beating heart of Islam,” on his Hajj – a Muslim’s holiest pilgrimage – Sharma reminds the viewer of two things – first, that filming inside Mecca is prohibited; and second, that Saudi Arabia sees homosexuality as a sin punishable by death. As a gay Muslim filmmaker, he’s about to break a lot of rules, and document it all as it happens.

At first glance, it’s the story of one man’s journey of spiritual completion. But there are so many more layers to sink your teeth into, highlighting a remarkable human experience. The filmmaker’s relationship with his late mother, with his atheist husband, and with fellow pilgrims also form significant chunks of the narrative. It’s as much about these things as it is about the supposedly ‘conflicting’ parts of his identity. Which, by the way, isn’t a first for the filmmaker.

There’s his 2008 documentary, ‘A Jihad For Love‘, and the foreword he wrote to Samar Habib’s anthology ‘Islam And Homosexuality‘. ‘A Sinner In Mecca‘ matures his assay on the same subject by turning the camera (more specifically the iPhone) on himself. There aren’t too many grand panoramas in high contrast lighting. But the jerky camera motions, the rapidly mutating soundtrack, and fleeting (almost psychedelic) glimpses of Arafat, Tawaf, Mina and other locations, has a compelling rawness to it.

The film has its lighter moments too – like when the minister officiating Parvez’s marriage to Daniel accidentally puts a French twist to his name, or when he jests about the “goat madness” as pilgrims in white scurry around trying to get a sacrifice. And then there’s my personal favourite – “The next five days are going to be hell,” says Sharma, trudging along. Then, catching sight of an attractive man, he mumbles, “or maybe not.”

For a project as passionate and personal as this, there seems to be a heavy amount of controversy. Death threats were being dealt like playing cards, and more than anything else, it is because of his indictment of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam. It is a version of the faith that is violent, oppressive and controlling, and largely unquestioned because of the massive wealth and political power backing it up.

“My faith seems to disappear in this place,” he says, nearing the end of his pilgrimage, during which he is struck by the absurdity of a Starbucks located roughly 1000 feet from the holy Kaaba. When he gets to the ritual meant to recreate the struggle of Hajar (a mother who ran seven times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, a figure Sharma finds comfort in), it is unrecognizable from the story it is based on. Sharma’s disappointment is palpable as he is herded seven times along the length of air conditioned and neon-lit tunnels.

There is an “emptiness” that he can’t get rid of, even as a Mustati, and for good reason. For someone raised on the musical, expressive Sufi traditions of India, he finds that his religion of peace has been “hijacked by a violent minority”. His choice of words appears to reflect the same distinction that many Muslims feel compelled to make about terrorism. But Sharma holds a unique position when he makes these statements. His need for distinction – between his identity and Saudi Islamism – is not a withdrawal, but an appeal. “Islam’s reformation is long overdue,” he says. “Perhaps Muslims like me will be the reformers.”

The film is simultaneously about an individual’s faith, and about the history and practice of Islam. The questions that it asks – ‘can Islam accept a gay man?’ and ‘can a gay man accept Islam?’ are questions we must try to answer. And the thoughts that it leaves you with – well, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

Youth Ki Awaaz is the media partner for I View World 2016. For more details, and the screening schedule, click here.