Thursday, April 30, 2015

'A Sinner in Mecca' impresses at Hot Docs Toronto festival

Thousands of Muslims circling the Kaaba in Mecca,
as seen in 'A Sinner in Mecca'
I attended the world premiere last night of director Parvez Sharma's controversial new documentary 'A Sinner in Mecca.'   It played at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival.

Sharma is an openly gay Muslim filmmaker who previously directed 'A Jihad for Love.'  His new film chronicles his own personal and spiritual journey to visit Mecca, a journey all Muslims are supposed to make at least once during their lifetimes.

The CBC ran stories about Sharma and his film yesterday: 

"The Hajj is the highest calling for any Muslim," he told CBC News. "For years I felt I really needed to go, so this film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I'm done coming out as a gay man."

He videotaped his journey to Mecca surreptitiously on his iPhone and other small cameras that looked like phones since filming isn't permitted in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality can be punished by death.

"I was terrified because they reserve the death penalty for people like me," Sharma said.

Several times he had his equipment seized and video files deleted by authorities. But he persevered with both his spiritual journey and his film.

"I was there making this pilgrimage for the thousands of gay Muslims who were too scared to go to Saudi Arabia, who would feel they would never be welcome," Sharma said. "I felt I was doing it for them."

...The film's very existence has earned Sharma hate mail and death threats from angry Muslims.

The film was also denounced by the Iranian government for promoting homosexuality. The Hot Docs festival has added extra security for the filmmaker's safety and for patrons attending the three sold-out screenings."

My take on the film: it is a stunning journey documented with meticulous detail by Sharma that I won't forget.   As a non-Muslim Westerner (and non-religious person) who will never be able to journey to these locations, it was incredibly illuminating.

Sharma's voice over accompanying his visuals make clear the immense physical challenges he and others endure to make this trip, including the pushing through mass crowds circling the Kaaba (pictured above) as most try to touch it.  The circling goes on 24/7.  "There is nothing kind" about this, remarks Sharma.  Instead of being a moment of solemn prayer and reflection, it's an exhausting shoving match not for the faint of heart, it seems.   Near this holiest of Muslim sites, Saudi royalty has seen fit to allow a Starbucks franchise and various other commercial outlets to be opened. The clash between solemn religion and modern capitalist hypocrisy couldn't be more stunning.

Sharma even sacrifices a goat to fulfil his journey, the final step in his religious purification, he says. The bloody scene is awful to watch.  In the end, Sharma says he feels empty, but relieved he made the journey.  He also states the experience bolsters his desire to see a "reformation" in Islam.

Non-Muslims will see things in this film they will never otherwise see.  I'd say the same goes for Muslims as well.  As a gay man who has also struggled to find a place within organized religion, I found Sharma's journey and film to be fascinating.   I highly recommend it.

'A Sinner in Mecca' plays again this weekend at Hot Docs, and later in May will screen at Toronto's LGBT Inside Out film festival.


Anonymous said...

As a Muslim, I am opposed to homosexuality. This entitles you to call me a "homophobe", despite my Constitutional right to freedom of religion and thought.

I don't hate homosexuals but I do however hate homosexuality. This further reiterates your privilege to call me a "homophobe" again.

Does that now entitle me to call you an "Islamaphobe" because I assert my freedom of religion, speech and thought?

The bottom line is that you are doing your alleged cause a major injustice when you condemn people for simply practicing their civil rights as Canadians. By me simply not agreeing with you I am painted as a hater and a radical.

You have the freedom to do want you want and to think what you want but I have that same freedom also. The only difference is that my freedom ends where your feelings begin and you can further paint me as a hater because I simply disagree.

Matt Guerin said...

Yes you do sound like a homophobe, Jeremy. And your religion, like most mainstream religions, is homophobic in many ways. But all religions are nuanced and diverse and there are schools of thought and diversity within most that allows for the acceptance of homosexuality quite readily. This director, Mr. Sharma, argues in favour of a reformed Islam, a space within Islam for more than just the rigid and neo-conservative represented by the regressive Saudis depicted in all their hypocrisy in this great film.

I don't have an "alleged" cause. I have a cause, one that is just and will continue to win over the minds and hearts of all human beings.

Besides that, you put many words in my mouth that I don't believe. That's your privilege and abusive power.

This film depicts a part of the world I couldn't even go to because I'm not a Muslim. A part of the world where discrimination and lack of respect for human rights is paramount. It's rich of you to now claim equality rights and freedoms o the West to try to bash me. To use the values of the west against us. Quite gross actually. Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

As a Westerner living in the Middle East, this idea that Arabs are homophobic is hyperbole. It's commonly perceived in these parts that 90% of Saudi Men are gay or bisexual. yes, 90%. Try walking down the street in Riyadh or Jeddah without men constantly stopping to hit on you. Get stopped by the police while driving, simply flirt your way out of the ticket. Trust me when I tell you the Middle East is a gay Mecca (pun intended) homosexuality is not only open it's practically mainstream. Certainly you aren't going to on TV and come out but everyone knows what's going on, there's nothing convert about it. Two men can hold hands while walking and two men can check into hotels together, the nuances of the culture makes homosexuality allowable. Certainly if you embarrass the country or piss off the wrong person you be held as an example. The filmmaker needs to spend more time in Saudi beside making the journey just for the Hajj.