COMPLICATED CONVERSATIONS WITH DIRECTOR PARVEZ SHARMA ON HIS NEW FILM —
A SINNER IN MECCA
By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights
Parvez Sharma is a gay, Muslim filmmaker, journalist and writer. He is originally from India and now lives in New York City. His two films: A Jihad for Love (2008) and A Sinner in Mecca (2014) are well known on the festival circuit as well as in human rights and academic circles.
I met Sharma in 2007 when he was screening his film, A Jihad for Love, in Chicago. The film was met with much praise in the queer community, the Muslim community and the queer Muslim community. It was also met with a fatwa from the Saudi government.
In 2015, Sharma released a new film, A Sinner in Mecca. This film too had a strong and mixed response. Shown in 52 film festivals and 14 colleges and universities in 22 countries, mostly in Europe and Canada. The New York Times called it one of the bravest films of the year, and earlier in March at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Film Festival, Sharma received the “Human Rights Defender” award along with Ensaf Haidar, wife of jailed Suadi blogger Raif Badawi.
The film has also generated much criticism –some of it homophobic but also from people, Muslim and non-Muslim, who cite an air of homonationalism which could feed into glorifying the West (specifically in this case the US) as the “protector of LGBTQ people.” They fear that Sharma’s selective video footage of the Hajj feeds into an essentializing and negative portrayal of Islam. Critics argue that the film is overly simplistic — portraying all Muslims as homophobic and misogynistic without looking at the increase in queer, Muslim and queer Muslim activism in religious communities as well as academia and social services. There is a particular concern about what this may mean post-Paris, post-Brussels during the midst of a civil war, the unraveling of Arab Spring and the ongoing refugee and migrant flow. Critics have also raised ethical concerns about the filmmaker’s interviews with pilgrims without their consent.
In short, it is a messy film that leads to messy and necessary conversations. And that is precisely why I wanted to host the Vancouver premiere of A Sinner in Mecca, followed by a post-screening conversation with Sharma at Simon Fraser University where I teach. And it was clear from the turn out that people did indeed want to talk about the uncomfortable issues raised in the film. On that sunny evening – a rare thing in rainy Vancouver – over 250 people showed up. During the Q & A, Sharma was both praised for exposing the hypocrisies and human rights violations of Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the US, as well as challenged regarding his portrayal of Shia’as which many felt sensational. Many in the audience respected the filmmaker’s willingness to visibly identify as a gay Muslim while others wondered how much this film had to do with queerness at all. Sharma engaged, as did the audience.
Prior to the screening I had the opportunity to interview Sharma via skype and I present an edited version of our conversation here on Praxis Center as a way to continue the conversation and delve into the many issues raised by the film.
Shayna Plaut: Who is the intended audience for the film?
Parvez Sharma: Just like my first film, A Jihad for Love, I never made the film for an intended audience. I feel everyone can relate to being an outsider — who can find some sort of empathy with the character. In this case, the character is me: a filmmaker who has turned the camera upon himself. So I don’t divide audiences into target groups. But it is important to me that Muslims see and engage with the film. But Muslims are not the only audience.
And who has shown interest?
It went to 22 countries last year with enormous response everywhere it went. Audiences have been extremely engaged. There have been a few instances where Muslim audience members have reacted strongly to the film and not agreed with the content, but the majority of the reaction – other than the online hate and death threats which I receive on a daily basis [from Muslims as well as Islamophobes] – has been extremely positive. Audiences say that it takes them into a world they have never seen before.
But who is actually showing up to the screenings and who is not? Who do you wish you could reach?
Look, I don’t do a demographic survey of my audiences. I just show up at screenings and they are usually packed. I don’t ask how many of you are X or how many are Y.
What is clear is that it has not been shown in any Muslim country publicly. And that is a problem that we faced with A Jihad for Love as well. But eventually, because we worked so hard with that film, we were able to arrange for it to be shown. We had public screenings in Egypt, in Lebanon (Beruit) and Pakistan. And I have been to these countries and it was amazing. But it took about 3 years before there were those public screenings. It took an incredible amount of work and support, mostly from non-profit organizations working in those publics to do those screenings. So I am hoping for the same things with a Sinner in Mecca but it is not going to happen overnight.
I am in touch with the same people who supported A Jihad for Love and, inshallah, I hope this year or next, things are going to work out and I can actually be in Muslim countries as well.
Many of us who watched the film were thinking about the changing context between when the film was shot and now. It is a post-Charlie Hebdo, post-Paris, post-migrants in Europe, post-Cologne, post-San Bernardino audience. I am wondering how, given the increase of Islamophobia, you have experienced the change in reaction.
Last year I was doing a lot of talks and film festivals. Only once in the UK some Saudi woman who actually saw the film got upset and said that the film is Islamophobic .
I strongly believe the film is NOT Islamophobic; but there is a critique inherent in the film against the Saudi government and Wahhabi Islam and that for me is very important. There are points in the film when there is a strong critique of the Saudi government’s destruction of the history of Islam. The news clips that we use exposes the totalitarian government and the film explains the pact that was made between the House of Saud and Wahhabi Islam.
It was a deliberate choice on my part to go on the Hajj in September of 2011. The Arab Spring was happening and I was very active during that time reporting, especially around Egypt. Osama Bin Laden was killed. I carried the critique of the Saudis with me on the Hajj. That was my intent.
The Iranian government came out against the film in public through one of their websites. So of course there is a lot of online reaction saying that this film is Islamophobic, but I think it is coming from people who have not really engaged in the film.
I don’t think the film is Islamophobic at all. But it is up to the interpretation of the audience as well. What people take away from the film, I have learned over the years, can be very different. It can change from person to person.
We did all watch the film. And we were a diverse group – Muslim. Practicing. Not-so-practicing. Queer. Non-Muslim. Progressive. And we did feel that, given what is happening to Muslims in the West, we were troubled. Do you feel a responsibility in changing the way you show this film given the audience?
I have a responsibility with the film absolutely. But as I said, the film is Saudi[regime]-phobic not Islamophobic. Towards the end, in fact, there are several statements in the voiceover — for example, “Islam’s reformation is long overdue.” And then the voice over says, “Perhaps Muslims like me will be allowed to be the reformers.”
So there is that critique of Saudi Islam. Of Wahhabi Islam. Of conservatism in Muslim communities everywhere. I know this. I grew up with this. I know exactly what the mindsets are. And I can understand that people will be angry about the existence of the film.
You state that “Islam’s reformation is long overdue and perhaps it is Muslims like me that will be the reformers.” So, what do you want that reformation to look like?
There are a lot of things in Islam that need to change. Number one is [to stop] the export of Wahhabi ideologies to countries all around the world including my own, India. The Saudis now export enormous amounts of money in order to build mosques but they also export imams that carry the enormous and difficult and ridiculous and incorrect baggage of Wahhabi Islam. What that has done is that it has made Muslim societies around the world increasingly conservative. It is a very dangerous form of Islam. It is an Islam that is regressive. Puritanical. Cruel. For example beheadings are taking place in Saudi Arabia – we are in the 21st century! And that really needs to change.
What also needs to change is the Saudi monarchy – the house of Saud – carrying the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — because that title itself gives him, and the house of Saud, an enormous legitimacy of being the arbiters of the real Islam. Like their version of Islam is [the] real [Islam], because of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. And that needs to change. But it’s not going to change easily. But that is an enormous problem and [all] I [can] hope is that this film can be one small part.
And Saudis need to give women rights in that country. Iran allows women to drive and there are parliamentarians, and that is a country ruled by Sharia law as much as Saudi Arabia. And look – a Saudi woman cannot leave the country unless she has written permission from either her father, brother or husband. This is completely ridiculous and it needs to change. And so much needs change.
The West needs to be held accountable for being in bed with the Saudis and not critiquing them in the way they should be because no one speaks up about this kind of stuff. Because of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth and the close relationship historically between the House of Saud and the US government.
You are obviously trying to be provocative in the film – which I do not see as a bad thing – but the use of blood, the act of filming itself is provocative. So who are you trying to provoke and for what purpose?
I am trying to show the Hajj with absolute honesty and not cover up what is going on. So it is a very honest film about what is going on with the largest pilgrimage in the world and it shows it warts and all. Everything.
Provocation is not the right word. It is an act of activism and trying to create some kind of dialogue, action and social change. And that is going to happen on many different levels. So one example, the Saudi destruction of Islamic history and the building of that enormous shopping mall right across from The Kabbah and the Starbucks within it and so on and so forth. So those are things that should provoke discussion and debate.
So this action for social change…is this primarily within the Muslim community or Muslim and non-Muslim community or…
As I said this is going to happen at every single level so it’s important for non-Muslims to see the film. To understand what it means to be faithful. What happens in the pilgrimage where non-Muslims are not allowed for 14 centuries? It opens windows into an entire world that has been traditionally forbidden. And hopefully it gives a perspective about Islam that is different.
You repeatedly state that you are a good Muslim and gay. You say this throughout the film. Who are you trying to prove this to?
To God. That is the struggle. It is about faith.
So Jihad for Love was the first part of that struggle. This is the second part of that continuing story. Where the filmmaker turns the camera on himself and goes as an openly condemned man into this country to experience the religious experience that all Muslims in the world aspire to. So it’s about faith. And reaching some kind of peace around this question. In this case – speaking in the third person – this particular character’s grief about his mother and also his desire to be accepted as a rightful part of the Umma – the worldwide community of Muslims.
So it is definitely a film about faith and seeking redemption. And it comes to the conclusion: it is no longer a question about whether Islam will accept me – but rather whether I will accept Islam.
I am curious about the word “prove.” You keep talking about needing to “prove” – to whom do you need to prove?
To God. And a lot of Muslims, gay Muslims especially, are denied any agency in able to claim faith. And this is true in all faith-based communities, which condemn homosexuality. And hopefully this speaks to that.
In Toronto last year – and this was amazing – a gay Muslim man stood up with 200 people in the audience. And he said that he was coming out and that he has never done that. He had lived his life in secret and the thought that he would never had the courage to go on the Hajj and that I had done the pilgrimage on behalf of all gay Muslims that would be too afraid to go. And that was his perspective.
And in that Q and A I said, “Inshallah you will have a chance to go.” Every time that an audience member has talked about going on the Hajj I have encouraged them to go – I have not discouraged them.
My last question – you state in the film that it was easy to tell secrets when you were in the desert. Did you tell anyone your secret? Did you tell anyone you were gay?
In the modern Hajj you go on a group – you don’t go alone. I went with a group of Shias but three of us were Sunni. And one of the people was a really kind doctor from South Carolina who was on the Hajj with his wife and mother in law. We became friends and within a week or week and half, [I did] share this with him. And say, “I am gay.” His response was “I already knew. But why would you want to be a part of something that does not want any part of you?” And I was not able to answer that. So perhaps this film is the answer.