“A Sinner in Mecca”
Filming the Hajj
Parvez Sharma is a gay filmmaker who faced two serious challenges while he made his film, “A Sinner in Mecca” in Saudi Arabia. First, filming is forbidden in the country and second, homosexuality is punishable by death. These were risks he had to assume as he began his Hajj pilgrimage, a journey considered the greatest accomplishment and aspiration within Islam, his religion. The aim of his journey, according to Sharma was to look beyond 21st-century Islam’s crises of religious extremism, commercialism and sectarian battles. His is a personal story as he went through the biggest of jihads— the struggle with the self.
“A Sinner in Mecca”, Sharma’s new documentary, tells his he does what more than 15 million other Muslims do annually — travel to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. However, his story is filled with danger since he could be put to death if discovered. He sees his film as a huge message of defiance for the thousands of gay Muslims who are afraid to make the trip. “I felt I was doing it for them,” the Indian-born director told CBS News. The film has been denounced by the Iranian state media as a “Western conspiracy” to legitimize the “despicable sin of homosexuality,” and when the film was shown in Toronto, security was taken very seriously became Sharma had received so much hate mail and threats on his life. Sharma explains, “The Hajj is the highest calling for any Muslim. For years I felt I really needed to go, so this film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I’m done coming out as a gay man.”
Sharma shot the film on iPhones and other small cameras since filming is not permitted. Along the way his equipment was seized, footage deleted, and he constantly feared for his freedom and life. But for him it was all about healing the wounds that he has suffered as a Muslim. He sees his film as a call to action to all Muslims to change the things that need to change within 21st Century Islam and he adds, “We’re running out of time.” He expected there to be backlash— he was denounced and had a fatwa imposed on him by “a minor religious figure in South Africa” following the release of his 2007 film A Jihad for Love, which looked at the lives of gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims.
Iranian state media denounced the film as part of a “Western conspiracy” to legitimize the “despicable sin of homosexuality” without even seeing it. “No one had even seen (the film) yet and yet the reaction has been enormous,” said Sharma. The film chronicles his hajj (a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an act of devotion that assures forgiveness for sins). It’s a film about faith, forgiveness and Sharma’s spiritual reconciliation with his late mother, who didn’t accept his homosexuality.
“I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay,” Sharma says in the film as he begins his journey, which includes stops in his birthplace of Saharanpur in northern India. Sharma brought two small cameras and an iPhone into holy sites, where it is forbidden to film. He said some of his footage was erased when his camera was confiscated by Islamic religious police. “I was taking a risk with the entire piece,” said Sharma, who was surprised to be even issued a hajj visa, given his notoriety. “I was definitely one of the most public homosexual Muslims in the world. Everything about me is just a Google search away.”
He is also sharply critical in the documentary of what he calls the “rigid Saudi version of Islam,” Wahhabism. Even the dangers, Sharma says that he never considered not filming his hajj. Documentary filmmakers have a natural instinct to film their most important journey and this is his. He went on his pilgrimage to ask “forgiveness for every wrong he has ever done . There is much more here than just his expression of faith as a devout Muslim. As he experienced the hajj, he felt as if he was making it on behalf of so many gay Muslims who are afraid to go, hundreds of thousands of them. He feels that his presence there was a validation for the worldwide community. But then there is the question as to why gay Muslims would remain in a religion that wants them dead and there seems to be no answer to that. There is also an open question in the film as to who is the real sinner in Mecca when one of Sharma’s fellow pilgrims makes a shocking confession concerning his reason for seeking forgiveness.
Parvez’s own religious convictions remained strong. It was because of this and a deep desire to cleanse himself of his sins that he felt compelled to undertake the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Parvez tells us that his husband doesn’t understand his need to undertake dangerous journeys and we sense an uneasiness between Parvez’s professed goals and these more complex personal motivations, at times making his quest seem inappropriately self-centered. However, there’s no doubt that he changes as the journey progresses, perhaps in ways he didn’t expect, and his inner conflicts make it more compelling. Meanwhile, we see snapshots of the Indian town where he grew up, of a more relaxed Islam, and we hear about the mother who died from cancer unable to forgive him for his sexuality.
As his journey progresses, other themes begin to emerge, some of them equally challenging. Footage from Mecca is generally only released through approved channels; individuals are not supposed to film what is, for many, an intensely private process. This put Parvez in a difficult ethical position and it’s good to see that he generally refrains from filming the faces of those whose voices are captured in the film, but what he is able to do is illustrate to the wider world some of the ways in which the holy city has changed over the years.
We see him as he emerges from the Grand Mosque into an adjoining shopping mall, where pilgrims are invited to go straight from kissing the Kaaba stone to sipping a Starbucks and this may shock many—air conditioning on the hajj for one thing and the amount of garbage on the streets for another. This could very much add to the controversy about the Saudi government’s management of the holy sites.
The principal focus of the film is on one man’s personal relationship to his faith, and his willingness to be open about his several uncertainties, together with his understanding that it isn’t going to change quickly just for his sake. The film touches on a number of the central conflicts in contemporary Islam (and in religion more widely) but does so in a way that invites reflection. Sharma may not seem like a natural authority, but as he notes, everyone is a sinner when setting out for Mecca.
In “A Jihad for Love”, his first film, 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. Now for his second documentary he has defied the bans on photography to turn the lens on himself and fellow pilgrims during the annual hajj. What we see is a mix of the surreal and the grittiness of life.
Sharma has brought defiance, humility and anguish to his participation in the pilgrimage. He has managed to and capture remarkable footage of one of the world’s largest gatherings; something that is off-limits to non-Muslims. Sharma’s “sense of self-dramatizing indulgence is undercut by the very real dangers and emotional turmoil that shape Sharma’s experience”.
The documentary opens with a horrifying chat-room exchange with a friend in Saudi Arabia followed by the use of animation to illustrate the historical backdrop of what he considers a religion divided, born of peace but “hijacked by a minority.” Sharma is a Sunni who grew up with exposure to Sufi mysticism and he emphasizes his need to separate the Islam he loves from the official Saudi variety.
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. The images we see are sometimes impressionistic and grainy but they provide 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.
There are filmed interactions with other pilgrims but they are limited— this is Sharma’s monologue addresses himself and Allah. But he does include audio recordings (with altered voices) of two men who tell harrowing stories —one is a Pakistani who admits that he took part in an honor killing.
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. We see also Western commercial intrusions with signage and a shopping mall adjacent to a holy mosque. Sharma’s snide comments on these commercial intrusions are welcome bursts of humor amid the doleful self-questioning that characterizes much of Sharma’s voiceover narration.
Sharma is filled with guilt over his mother, a poet who never accepted his sexuality, and whose death by cancer he attributes in part to shame. We also see some personal footage of Sharma and his husband’s wedding day and of their life together and this shows great contrast to the secret lives that gay Muslims are forced to live
Sharma now believes that he’s “a better Muslim” after the hajj and this is unclear as to why. What is very evident is his hope for reform amid extremist currents in Islam.