Before Parvez Sharma’s "A Sinner In Mecca" even premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs this week, it was already proving of the festival’s most controversial films. Detailing the openly gay, devoutly Muslim Sharma’s own pilgrimage to Mecca, the film offers a journey that significantly but the filmmaker/subject in danger as he secretly — and illegally — used cameras in Saudi Arabia, which also just so happens to be a country where being gay is punishable by imprisonment, a public whipping and even beheading.
The Toronto Star reported ahead of the film’s world premiere that Sharma received multiple online threats that brought forth heightened security for the film’s premiere.
“It’s (being done) out of an abundance of caution,” Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie told The Star. “It’s obviously a film that is provocative and high interest, and so we have somebody who will be with Parvez.”
But the film’s first screenings went off without issue, and were packed to the rafters. Even its second screening — in the middle of the day on a weekday — saw roughly a hundred folks turned away hoping to get in on rush tickets. They have one more chance when the film screens again tomorrow (May 2nd), and it’s certainly worth the attempt: "A Sinner in Mecca" is a powerful, illuminating personally essay on the inner struggles of a gay Muslim, as well as a remarkable examination of contemporary Islam.
“As an adult, my relationship to conventional Islam has never been easy,” Sharma says in the film. “Islam is at war with itself and I have fought hard to not be a casualty.”
Sharma was welcomed to the stage after the film’s Thursday screening at the Royal Ontario Museum with a standing ovation,
"I felt compelled to [make this journey] because I had struggled," Sharma said. "I was done coming out as a gay man. I needed to come out as a Muslim, and that’s what this film is about. I hope that question is answered successfully in the film."
A fellow gay Muslim in the audience applauded Sharma’s mission, saying himself would be far too terrified to make the same journey.
"At times I felt very strongly that I was doing this on behalf of the thousands of gay Muslims who were afraid to go," Sharma responded. "I felt that praying on your behalf and I was asking for redemption — if it’s possible — for the gay Muslims who were not there with me."
Sharma also made it clear how he and his team plan to get the film out to the people who probably most need to see it.
"With my previous film ‘A Jihad For Love’ what we did was we built a vast, underground network within Muslim countries," he said. "So I used to send out DVDs and people used to see the film in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia at hundreds of private screenings. They continue to this day. So I’m going to use that underground network."
Watch the trailer below, and check out the film’s website here.