Like a good Muslim, Parvez Sharma (“A Jihad for Love”) was ready to take his pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. As someone who documents his life, for his second documentary, he decided to shoot his journey. In 2011, he went alone, accompanied only by his iPhone4S. Now that the film is finished and hitting screens, he is paying a heavy price. Was it worth it?
Chills went up my spine when I saw his footage of the Ka’ba, the Great Mosque, surrounded by a giant mass of humanity. Sharma joined the swirl, steered himself to the holy stone cube at the center, and filmed himself touching it. Over the course of his haj security guards stopped him from filming and even deleted video several times, but fortunately they always returned his iPhone. Some footage survived.
“A Sinner in Mecca” puts Sharma front and center as the subject and the filmmaker, the protagonist and the narrator. This is very hard to pull off. But he keeps to his personal mission and stays on track as he tells us what is going on. He introduces us to his gay partner and husband, his relationship with his mother, who inspires this trek, and his quest for acceptance by Allah as a devout Muslim gay man.
Is that oxymoronic? He doesn’t think so. “I am once again in the closet,” he says in the film, “not only as gay filmmaker but as a pilgrim.”
“Contemporary Islam is at war with itself,” he adds. “And I have fought hard not to be its casualty.” At another juncture he comments: “Reform of Islam is long overdue. Perhaps Muslims like me will be the reformers.”
The movie risks coming off as a stunt. “Look Ma! I’m shooting my haj!” But Sharma takes his quest seriously and follows the rules as far as he can. Will he go so far as to ritually sacrifice a goat with his own hands? He wrestles with this haj demand. And he’s horrified by the way the Saudis have commodified Mecca into a Vegas-like consumer paradise. After he leaves the Mosque he segues straight into the shopping mall next door, where he finds a Starbucks.
The real risks he took involve continued threats to his safety, which we discuss below. The movie opens September 4 at the Cinema Village in New York, Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles on September 11 and rolls out to more cities, followed by Netflix, iTunes and European and Canadian TV broadcasts.
Anne Thompson: Why did you feel compelled to film this journey?
Parvez Sharma: Firstly, the hardest thing a documentary filmmaker can do is turn the camera on themselves. It’s a hard genre. I didn’t expect it would take so much out of me when I started documenting my life. It never seemed, during the entire process, that this would actually end up being the film. I did not think I would be able to finish the film, as I knew I was constantly documenting.
The filmmaker part of my brain said, “there’s no way I would not document the greatest journey I have taken in my entire life.” But the pilgrim part of my brain said “I should not do it, and focus on the integrity of the pilgrimage itself.” There was always that conflict, I had to deal with that. At the time, it took an enormous of courage.
You were alone in Mecca?
In India I had a full camera crew. In Saudi Arabia I had nothing. I call it the Saudi selfie film. It’s been a lonely journey. The whole thing of turning the camera on yourself and then filming under these circumstances makes it more challenging and difficult.
There’s no filming allowed of the Great Mosque?
The Saudis have sanctioned what I call junket films about the haj, by filmmakers paid for by the Saudis, to film with filters, the way the Saudis want it portrayed. The unsavory aspects of this largest of pilgrimages the Saudi government presents in a particular way. This film goes to the guts of it, exposes it as it really is.
No one has ever seen the Ka’ba up close the way I did. In that sequence, when I get into the thick of circling, it was claustrophobic and intense. It’s an unkind space. I was rubber-banding the iPhone around my neck, letting it run, not knowing if it was recording or not, while I was in the middle of that crowd, hundreds of thousands of people were doing the same thing at the same time.
Were people ever trampled?
Yes, as was I. It was the worst period. The haj made me feel not the least religious. I was trampled to the ground and it was very difficult to get back up.
Your mother plays a role in your haj: “I want to a be a pilgrim she would be proud of,” you say.
I had unfinished business to do with that. To turn the camera on yourself… as a filmmaker, you feel vulnerable and exposed. If I look at it now, I feel that I have exposed too much of myself perhaps, but that was what was required for the narrative to hold together and not do a polemic, to actually meet this guy and get into the meat and bones of his life and want to take his journey with him. That’s how we wanted to construct the film. How personal it became was so important.
The film combines the political, personal, and spiritual in a remarkable way I’ve never seen before.
The film has got a lot of abstraction and a poetic quality which we hard tried to construct. The footage was filmed under challenging circumstances. Initially during my time in Saudi Arabia a lot got deleted by religious police. What makes it into the film is what survived. We had to construct the narrative with that footage. That was the biggest challenge during editing. We decided to have that abstract quality, to try to make something poetic, something very undocumentary. We made the decision to not use any music that was oriental, or not western. We only use western music. What we ended up doing, there’s heavy metal during the stoning sequence. These are artistic choices, deliberately made.
How much was deleted? Did they return the phone?
They did give me the phone back, because it’s a phone. They spotted me several times during the early part of the haj. It happened less frequently later on: divine intervention of some kind. These men walk around with sticks and they hit you if you are doing something unIslamic. I was at the wrong end of the stick several times. People do take selfies, they want to carry back a memory, but that takes a few seconds. As a filmmaker you need to stand in a particular spot for a period of time. You attract more attention.
You must have figured out a lot in the editing process? The narration was key. That must have been a challenge.
The first cut of the film was done in India, which involved smuggling hard drives and footage through customs, out of the country. I was editing with a young Shia muslim editor who is straight. I felt a real connection with him. We started the editing process. Early on in the editing I told him and myself that we needed to refer to me in the third person, so that we could remove ourselves if possible from the person sitting next to him, the filmmaker. We were successful in doing that over a period of time. That helped us a lot to distance ourselves, to look at the protagonist of the film as part of the film.
During editing in New York on the second phase, I came up with the narration and voiceover. To be true to the film was enormously difficult, to put everything into words, especially for the purposes of a film with a clear beginning, middle and end.
What kind of reactions have you received?
Death threats in emails since the initial press has spoken about it. I try to list them on the website when I can. The trailer has gone viral in the Muslim world, 100,000 views in a couple of months. Reactions coming were extremely negative based on the trailer, never people actually having seen the film. That’s a heavy burden to carry. I did not expect this would happen so early in life of the film. It’s still newborn. I expected negative reaction. I didn’t expect it so soon.
After the film premiered, within days the Iranian government propaganda websites ran pieces on the film and said I was promoting a “disgusting act of homosexuality,” the film was an insult to Islam. They have no idea what the film is about. That kind of official reaction has come, and a lot of reaction in the Arab blogosphere, people are upset that a film like this is out in the world.
Are you afraid that they will put a fatwa out on you, as they did Salman Rushdie?
My previous film [“A Jihad for Love”) had already lead to my condemnation as an apostate. This film does push the envelope way more than that film could ever have done. And thus I am terrified. I do not want to be at the receiving end of a fatwa (which is merely a religious opinion) of condemnation. Can I predict if it might happen? Definitely not. Right now, its the online hate that is most visible and persistent.
You are critical of the way the Saudis run Mecca.
I am concerned throughout the film with the messaging of it, that it exposes the Saudi version of Islam. This corrupt ruling monarchy is systemically destroying islamic history, building on top of it this Vegas-like city, like Mecca Vegas, turning what is supposed to be a very holy experience into a commercialized horrible unspiritual experience. There’s nothing spiritual about what they’re doing. The most dangerous thing is they’re destroying Islamic history: the house Prophet Mohammed shared with his wife in early life in Mecca has been demolished. They built a row of toilets on top of that, to obliterate the history of Islam.
The film was finished after Sundance, in time for HotDocs; we couldn’t wait as long as Toronto in the fall. It seems to be playing more at straight festivals than gay festivals. I was worried about the quality of the footage; it was shot on the iPhone4S; the 5 was not out in 2011. We had our world premiere at HotDocs 2015 in Toronto. The audience response at three screenings was remarkable, many were turned away. I started seeing hostility from some audience members, mainly Muslims who at Q & A sessions questioned the integrity of the film. Things like, “why would you dare make a film like this, to try and convert what is supposed to be a personal experience as a spiritual being into this medium, and cast a shadow over your own religiosity?”
At Sheffield in the UK a large number of Muslims came. At one screening an organized group of Suni women showed up and took notes and turned the Q & A horrific. They trashed and attacked the film and followed me outside, yelling at me. It felt pretty bad. HotDocs and other festivals I’ve attended added extra security. At Outfest they had airport-style security men in black with body checks and wands. Festivals playing the film perceive an element of threat and are providing additional security.
Do you regret having done this? Was it worth the risks?
I’m standing proudly behind my own film and I would do nothing less. I’m proud of it. It’s very hard to carry the burden of hate mail and threats directly, even though it’s coming online. That in itself is lonely and difficult to deal with. I’m learning as I go along. I hope to develop a thicker skin and not take it personally. I haven’t learned that yet.
And how does your husband feel about all this?
He’s struggling with it. He’s not a willing participant in the film. At the premiere was the first time he saw the entire thing, and he’s the only one who didn’t sign a release form, for example. That remains unfinished business between the two of us as to the choice of putting him in the film. He’s never gotten used to it. I struggle with it. I’m concerned about his safety. In the trailer which is very public his face his blurred, I knew that would travel widely. In the film itself it’s not, and being at the receiving end of this hate coming in now, I do question whether I have endangered him. I’d rather carry the danger by myself, I’d hate for something to happen to him.
He’s an atheist; he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body. For him it’s always been hard to understand that part of me. I am devout. The film is like a prayer. For some audiences it might even be too religious in its tone.
Have you had any difficulty getting the film shown?
The biggest challenge is to get the film into Muslim countries. At every screening I carry DVDs and if I see someone is going back to a Muslim country I give them a few DVDs to carry back. In Saudi Arabia and Jordan they have full permission to pirate them as many times as they want to have private screenings.