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'A Sinner in Mecca': Gay director risks death by filming his Haj pilgrimage

Parvez Sharma's new documentary has been clandestinely shot in Mecca.

Filming at the most sacred sites on the Haj is prohibited. In the case of A Sinner in Mecca, filmmaker Parvez Sharma risked death by merely taking the pilgrimage. The openly gay filmmaker of Indian origin shot his 80-minute new documentary, which will be premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, in a place where homosexuality is punishable by execution.

When Sharma went on the Haj in 2011, he smuggled in two small cameras and also put his iPhone to work. The result is a deeply personal look at the rituals that comprise the pilgrimage. It includes footage of the various holy sites in and around Mecca and Sharma’s ruminations on the commercialisation of the experience (there are malls and a Starbucks), the treatment of Shia pilgrims by the majority Sunnis, the unsanitary conditions that result from overcrowding, and the tremendous faith displayed by the millions of Muslims who throng the holy city.



A Sinner in Mecca is soaked in high drama, since Sharma is always in fear of being caught and exposed both as a clandestine filmmaker as well as a homosexual. In his 2007 debut documentary A Jihad for Love, Sharma interviewed gay and lesbian Muslims across the world. He describes his new film as being about a “Haj of defiance” and a protest against Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies, but also a spiritual journey to understand whether Islam can accommodate a someone like him who is viewed as a sinner.

Excerpts from an email interview with Sharma.

You put yourself in considerable peril to film A Sinner in Mecca. What made you do it?
As a devout Muslim, it was critical for me to perform my Haj pilgrimage ‒ it is one of the five pillars of Islam. As a filmmaker and an activist intent on reforming Islam, it was important for me to challenge Saudi authority ‒ this is the most corrupt and secretive regime in Islam and they have an insidious and longstanding project to export their version of an 18th century Islam called Wahabi Islam, which is an Islam of fear. It is an Islam that reserves the death penalty for openly gay Muslims like me.

In a nutshell I was putting my very life at risk. I was never sure I would be allowed in.

Once there, I was certainly not sure if I or any of my footage would make it back safely.

The Saudis have allowed a few “junket” films about the Haj where their ministries allow stooges of the regime to enter with cameras they sanction. However, with my profile and my agenda of exposing them and their problematic authority over Islam there was no way I would have been allowed in. I had to smuggle myself, my iPhone and two cameras that look like phones into the country.

Finally the roots of the dangerous ideology which lies at the heart of today’s ISIS and even al Qaeda comes from Wahabi Islam. And Wahabi Islam is what is taught in Saudi Arabia’s schools and exported all around the Muslim world including India, where you already see a Saudi style of conservatism affecting Muslim communities.

A Sinner in Mecca is thus a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia and unlike any film that has ever been made about the Hajj. And in order to do it, I had no choice but to put my life at considerable risk.

Despite a general ban on filming and photographing, one can spot quite a few people making short videos.
It’s the 21st century and the Saudis have given up on pilgrims carrying smart phones because mostly everyone has one. Many pilgrims like to take pictures or even short videos to take back to family back home. But no one is there with the intention I had. I was repeatedly questioned, sometime threatened by the religious police because I would stay at a spot for a long time ‒ doing tilts and pans, for example. As a filmmaker, you know that a shot needs to hold for at least 15 seconds if not longer. And I had to be mindful of filming all the time because I needed enough footage. Getting close to the Kaaba and exposing every grain of sand in it is a good example. It is a very violent space around the Kaaba as the film shows. I had to rubber-band my iPhone and hang it around my neck allowing it to capture every second as I tried and tried to get close to the Kaaba knowing full well that the images I would capture in such close proximity had never been seen by the world before.

At one point in the documentary, you say, "I ask you, oh Prophet, is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?' Did you get your answer?
The idea of sin is central to the Hajj ‒ in Islam, everyone who enters Makkah (Mecca) to complete their Haj is a sinner. If they complete their Hajj in the prescribed way and with the right niyat or intention they are absolved of all sin.

During Haj, one of the most critical days as I depict in the film is the day spent in the plain of Arafat ‒ this according to the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran is The Day of Judgment. Arafat transformed everything for me ‒ this is where I was able to ask that question and this is where my spirit got the answer: It was Allah (God) and his Nabi (Messenger ‒ the Prophet Muhammad) who had invited me and given me permission to perform my pilgrimage. And yes, they were very aware of my sins (homosexuality being just one of them) but they allowed me in. I knew there and then that within the Islam the Prophet Muhammad preached and founded in the seventh century there definitely was a place for me.

Are there any chances of returning, you think?
The Kaaba in Makkah (Mecca) is like a magnet ‒ the world’s most powerful. It is the beating heart of Islam. Its image was embellished in my head since I was a child, it was on every mussalla/janamaaz or prayer rug I had ever seen. It haunted me while I was in Makkah ‒ I returned to it night after sleepless night. And it haunts me today. Makkah will never leave me. But this I know: the corrupt and puritanical regime/monarchy in Saudi Arabia will never let me in after this work comes out. I really feel compelled to return. But the only way I could possibly do that is by changing my identity, my name even. But once again, I am devout ‒ I do believe in divine intervention. And if God and his Prophet want me back, perhaps no power in the world will be able to prevent my return.

Are there any links between A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca?
I think the two are very different films. The first was about being gay and Muslim. This film is about Islam and especially contemporary Islam and everything that ails it in the 21st century. My previous film is a narrative driven by many different characters inhabiting vastly different cultural and geographical spaces. This film is just about one protagonist, it is the filmmaker turning the camera on himself. Setting this film in Islam's ground zero in Makkah makes it a very powerful statement: much more powerful in some ways than my previous film.

This film is also about Saudi Arabia. Amongst many other things in that country I have mentioned earlier, it’s about the systemic destruction of Islamic history that the Saudis have carried out with great success. It is about the loss of the history of Islam that they have so profoundly created by altering the landscape of Makkah forever. It is a landscape of destruction. Contemporary Makkah is a Mecca Vegas, with an ever expanding skyline of skyscrapers and seven star hotels. It is a Mecca of capitalism. It is a Mecca that has been built on the destroyed remains of the history of the Prophet Muhammad's life. It is a slap in the face to fourteen plus centuries of Islamic history. These are the issues A Sinner in Mecca is most concerned with. Finally, perhaps the only thing that links my two films, is faith.

Like in A Jihad for Love, A Sinner For Mecca emphasise the possibility of finding answers and solutions within the faith rather than attacking it from the outside.
I have always believed that some of our most bitter battles of the 21st century will be fought on the frontlines of religion. And more importantly I have always believed that it is only the true believers of a faith that have the capacity to reform their faith. Change in Islam is going to come from inside out, not the other way around. In my case, I now have the ultimate authority ‒ I have the stamp of a Hajji on my forehead ‒ I have accomplished the highest calling in Islam.

A Jihad For Love continues to be such a successful film because it focused on believers. It has been seen by an estimated eight million people in 50-plus nations and continues to be a landmark. With it we built a successful underground railroad ‒ DVDs of the film continue to be exchanged and seen in places like Lahore, like Karachi, like Dhaka, like Tehran and even Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where I always get news of secret screenings. With A Sinner in Mecca, I hope to achieve the same.

How vital is it for you to uphold 'ijtihad' (independent thinking) while continuing to be a part of the 'ummah' (the community)?
I went to Makkah (Mecca) as a Muslim man who was already comfortable with his sexuality. I had crossed that bridge in my youth. So the question of my “gayness” did not haunt me. The question of my “Muslim-ness” did however propel me on this journey.

Ijtihad or independent reasoning was essential to the Islam that the Prophet Muhammad upheld and that scholars (often in disagreement) after his lifetime debated as they came up with the Islamic canon. However extremist and fundamentalist Muslims like the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia believe that the doors to this independent reasoning were closed in the seventh century after the Prophet's death.

For me there is no Islam without Ijtihad. The nature of this religion so that it continues to grow in peaceful ways needs to be a nature fuelled by debate. And I strongly believe and know for a fact that in a post-September 11 world, as the Arab Spring (still an unfinished business) unfolds the doors to Ijtihad have once again be flung wide open. Unfortunately that kind of debate has not percolated to the bully pulpit of the Grand Imam in Saudi Arabia or the Grand Ayatollah in Iran ‒ they are pretty set in their tunnel vision of Islam. Which is why I say in the film and in this interview, that perhaps it is Muslims like me (and I am not the only one) who hold the keys to the critical debates Muslims need to continue having about the place of Islam in their lives, in their nations and indeed in the world.

You also say in the film, 'I need evidence that my faith is strong enough to survive this journey.' Were there moments where you felt doubt?
The Haj can be violent and unsavoury. It always has been because all the millions of pilgrims come there do not all come with the same niyat or intention of goodwill and purity. Adults coming back from Hajj would provide carefully edited versions of their experience ‒ they would deliberately leave out the unsavoury aspects of the Haj.

There is indescribable dirt and filth. There is often an each to his own mentality. And faced with these, often I felt my faith wavering. But at the same time there are millions of acts of an indescribable generosity of spirit and Muslim brotherhood. I was stampeded to the rocky ground during the ritual stoning of the Devil at a place called Jamrat. And yet, I was helped up and saved by the kindness of complete strangers. I was thus able to overcome with profound faith in the ultimate goodness of my fellow pilgrims, even though I knew that many did not possess it like I would have wanted them to.

How long were you on the Haj? And what was the post-production process like?
The Haj proper only lasts five days. But I was in Saudi Arabia for a month. Before even entering Makkah we spent almost a week in Madinah (Medina), the city where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.

The post-production of this film was an amazing journey ‒ it was my Haj to India, the country where I was born and raised. I had found an unlikely ally, a Shia Muslim editor, immensely talented and with a vision that matched mine. So I took all my drives with my footage into India. We worked together for many months in Delhi. Getting the massive drives out of India was another big challenge. I was the smuggler-filmmaker again. Let us remember here that [Narendra] Modi’s India is not the best place for someone like me: neither gays nor Muslims are looked at favourably and here I was, a combination of both, making a film that would not easily be seen as fit for Indian audiences by the powers that are. However I felt strongly that to edit the film in my original home was a necessity. The film was finished here in the US. It took us close to a year to finish.

What is your distribution strategy for A Sinner in Mecca?
A Jihad for Love
was and continues to be screened to enormous audiences. The film was released theatrically in the US and Canada, seen widely in Europe and the UK and even broadcast in India by NDTV. It went to over a 100 film festivals. And it travelled a vast underground railroad to Muslim capitals like Islamabad, Karachi, Tehran, Riyadh, Jakarta and even Muslim cities in sub-Saharan Africa. It even impacted the highest levels of policy making when I did events/workshops with the film at the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. With A Sinner in Mecca, we will harness that power we built over so many years. The film is still looking for distribution in certain key territories including the US and Canada and parts of Europe--but it will be broadcast in France (by Arte) and Germany (by ZDF) ‒ two of Europe's biggest broadcasters.

I don’t imagine that the film will obviously be picked up for broadcast in the Muslim world and yet I am hopeful that it might. I want to continue my strategy as we travel the world to important film festivals, to turn cinemas into town-halls, spaces for intense debate and transformation. So with the film I am launching a Global Muslim Empowerment Project called Project 786  that I know will change the debate around 21st century Islam in many powerful ways. And of course in a post-digital age we will be exploring all forms of distribution harnessing the power of the social web.

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