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TORONTO '07 | Two Docs, "Jihad For Love" and "Surfwise" Stir Up Traditions in Both East and West

By Indiewire | Indiewire September 13, 2007 at 12:13PM

Defying tradition both openly and while hiding are at the root of two films screening here this week in Toronto. Parvez Sharma's "A Jihad for Love" takes a look at a segment of the planet's gays who are often left voiceless (along with those in other religious traditions). Exploring homosexual Muslims, the director said making the film was surprisingly abetted by the customs of Islam itself. And on the polar opposite spectrum, Doug Pray's "Surfwise" chronicles the rejection of the material world and the pursuit of great surf by one couple and their nine children who grew up living in a camper traveling from beach to beach in search of the perfect wave and perfect health.
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Defying tradition both openly and while hiding are at the root of two films screening here this week in Toronto. Parvez Sharma's "A Jihad for Love" takes a look at a segment of the planet's gays who are often left voiceless (along with those in other religious traditions). Exploring homosexual Muslims, the director said making the film was surprisingly abetted by the customs of Islam itself. And on the polar opposite spectrum, Doug Pray's "Surfwise" chronicles the rejection of the material world and the pursuit of great surf by one couple and their nine children who grew up living in a camper traveling from beach to beach in search of the perfect wave and perfect health.

Finding a new out in "A Jihad for Love"

"I think my entire life has been leading up to this film," said Parvez Sharma, director of the documentary, "A Jihad For Love," which is produced by Sandi DuBowski (director of "Trembling Before G-d," which told the stories of Jewish Orthodox gays), and playing to sold out screenings and standing ovations here in Toronto. "Jihad" details the five-year project Sharma undertook exploring the lives of Muslim homosexuals in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, South Africa and beyond.

"It's been a remarkable personal journey. It's been my own search for Islam and I have discovered so many things about my religion. I did not know the profound struggle it takes to be able to exercise sexual choice when you are surrounded by religious dogma that basically condemns you to hell."

On getting access to explore the lives of gay Muslims, Sharma said, "As a Muslim director, I had to go back into my own communities. I was searching for my own Islam. I had to develop relationships of trust and understanding with each one of the characters to even get them to the point of wanting to share the personal aspects of their lives. I had to do this with a tremendous amount of responsibility as a Muslim at a time where Islam is under so much attack to make a film that would be deeply respectful of Islam."

As one might suspect, the project was not an easy one for Sharma. "[Making] this film was very challenging and very interesting because the same Islam - the way I look - that makes me so recognizable in the West gave me a degree of protection when I went back in my own communities," he said. "So I had that invisibility but I was also dealing with governments who would have never given me permission - officially - to allow me to make this film if I had made a public request." In at least two instances he left tapes behind, ensuring the copies would be destroyed after he left. He would tape the beginning and ends of tapes with tourist-esque footage (which he acknowledges was no fun for his editor) and never take them as carry-on. "It served us well," he said. "While you're going to a place of relative safety as a filmmaker, you're leaving behind these gay and lesbian Muslims in their own communities. How do you protect them and what does that mean?"

DuBowski and Sharma met in January 2002 at a panel for "Trembling," and Sharma approached him afterwards with his idea. Five and a half years later, DuBowski is here in Toronto after serving as the film's producer. "It's really quite amazing," DuBowski said. "At the screening, there was a man in the audience who got up in the middle [to leave]." Worried he was not enjoying the film, DuBowski noticed as he passed by that he was sobbing, so Dubowksi followed him outside to make sure he was okay.

"He was just hysterically crying", said DuBowski. He had immigrated from Uganda and faced deportation to a country going through a huge anti-gay hysteria. He just kept saying, 'This was my story, this was my story.'" [Peter Knegt]

Going for perfect health in a camper in "Surfwise"

"I didn't want anything to do with it, and I still don't want to see it," said Dorian Paskowitz emphatically on Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, referring to Doug Pray's doc "Surfwise" which profiles him and his bohemian family. Despite the charismatic and affable family patriarch's crusty pronouncement, it couldn't be lost on the director, two of Dorian's sons, and his wife, Juliette (not to mention the publicists present) that the elder Paskowitz (called "Doc" by his wife, friends and even children) was here doing press. ("Surfwise" was produced by HDNet Films and will be released by Magnolia Pictures.)

Director Doug Pray (sitting) with the Paskowitz family: (left to right) Salvador Daniel, David Juliette and Dorian "Doc" in Toronto Wednesday afternoon in support of Pray's "Surfwise." Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Well-known in professional surfing circles, the Paskowitz family's offbeat story (on screen and off) played out for Toronto audiences this week. Doc, Juliette and their eight sons and one daughter lived in a 24-foot camper growing up, pursuing surf, a very strict healthy diet and living outside the boundaries of conventional society.

Doc grew up in more traditional trappings, even graduating from Stanford Medical School. He later moved to Hawaii, and was even tipped as a possible governor in what was to become the 50th U.S. state. Following the demise of his second marriage, however, he moved to Israel "to find himself" and rejected the material world. Soon after returning to California, he met Juliette, whom he married and had seven sons with in rapid succession, followed by daughter Navah and their ninth, Joshua. The children were raised in the Jewish tradition complete with Shabbat on the beach every Friday night outside their camper shirtless and in shorts, but that was the only iota of conventionality in the "household." The family subsisted on little (if no) money as Doc pursued living according to the rules of nature. Organic food with no sugar or fat, breastfeeding until age two and sex that's hardly hidden from the children were de rigueur for the Paskowitz clan.

Eldest son David, also in Toronto for the film and for the record, did see the film and even started a spirited back and forth with his father as well, while Juliette tried to interrupt saying, "Now just stop that now you two!" David also had not been interested in participating in the film until he met Pray. "Doug told me he'd love to have my participation and I declined adamantly. But when I realized he was the same Doug Pray who had directed 'Hype' and 'Scratch' and had managed to make those people look like Nobel-laureates, then I [knew] I wanted to do it."

Audiences may be taken aback by Doc's determination to keep his kids out of school, but as son number seven, Salvador Daniel said, "he always encouraged us to read... Look, I even got a 1320 on my SATs."

Sibling rivalries and a family that is clearly anything but conservative and stationary with wildly healthy libidos, a passion for the waves and a father who discovered the need to "drop out" way before the Timothy Leary anthem made its way into the popular culture, "Surfwise" celebrates a whole new freedom, even if there are moments of tyranny.

"[The children] are very good at the arts and they're amazing surfers," said Pray to indieWIRE. "When you're a filmmaker you're interested in stories... And this is the story of a couple who have a dream and it was a rare chance for me as a filmmaker to take part in [telling their story.]" [Brian Brooks]


indieWIRE's coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival is available anytime in special section here at indieWIRE.com.

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch