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Guest Review: ‘A Sinner In Mecca’

A pilgrimage as personal journey

A pilgrim pauses to pray before the Kaaba during the Hajj in Mecca.

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Above: A pilgrim pauses to pray before the Kaaba during the Hajj in Mecca.

Companion viewing

"A Jihad For Love" (2007), Parvez Sharma (US)

"Trembling Before G-d" (2001), Sandi Simcha Dubowski (Israel/US)

"Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile" (2015), Sophie Deraspe (Canada)

"Three Veils" (2011), Rolla Selbeck (US)

Guest reviewer Rebecca Romani says Parvez Sharma's new documentary, "A Sinner in Mecca" (now playing at the Digital Gym Cinema) is a mesmerizing look at a gay Muslim's search for religious meaning in an age-old rite.

Like all devout Muslims, filmmaker Parvez Sharma dreamed of fulfilling the ultimate act of religious duty, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Unlike most other Muslims, Sharma lives in a sense of suspension, an openly gay Muslim, regarded by many other Muslims as condemned by Islam to a perpetual state of sin.

For Sharma, after coming out as gay and Muslim in his last feature documentary, “A Jihad for Love,” going on the Hajj was a response to a call to faith and an opportunity to explore whether someone like him even has a place in the House of Islam.

It is a question that many gay and lesbian Muslims have struggled with with various degrees of success. Gay men from Egypt to Saudi Arabia have found themselves criminalized in trials and some have been executed.

“Islam is at war with itself, and I have fought hard not to be a casualty,” said Sharma, whose films on Islam and homosexuality have earned him death threats and security details at many of his screenings.

Sharma’s newest film, “ A Sinner in Mecca,” shot in Saudi Arabia in 2011, is a deeply personal and moving film that covers an event that non-Muslims can only see in pictures in a country most will never visit. “Sinner” is also highly political, critical as it is of the ruling House of Saud, the current guardians of two of the most holy sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Sharma’s new documentary is lyrical, yet loaded with his own personal quest as a gay man and as a Muslim seeking to reform the religion he loves.

Laid out like some of the best personal documentaries of the 1990s, Sharma incorporates gorgeous shots, lovely animation and sometimes overly self-indulgent scenes and melodramatic voice-overs.

While filming limitations produce some shaky, unfocused scenes, the general effect is mesmerizing. As an unusually close look at one of the oldest religious rituals in the world, this is one of the best personal works to come out of the Muslim world.

Early in the film, Sharma marries his longtime boyfriend, a New York-based musician, and starts to revisit his coming to terms as a gay man and a Muslim. His journey will take him from New York to India to the heart of Saudi Arabia.

What really jumps the film into gear is Sharma’s preparation and time in Mecca.

Shot on an iPhone and two suspended cameras, Sharma’s footage of the Hajj is a mixture of stunningly beautiful shots from the thousands of pilgrims in a swirling mass around the Kaaba, a holy, cube-like structure in the middle of the Al-Masjid Al-Haram to the hand held close-ups of the crass commercialism that lies barely 1,000 feet from Islam’s holy sites. It is where the sublime meets the squalid as streams of faithful move between the holy sites while trash threatens to engulf the city.

Sharma is well aware of how risky this Hajj is.

“I am once again in the closet, not only as a gay person but also as a filmmaker,” he said.

He works in constant fear of Saudi’s religious police, the “Mutaween” who harass him for filming and of being found out as gay, in a country where gay men have been stoned to death. He is unsure he will be let in. Once in, he is not sure he will make it out.

And yet, Sharma, a Sunni Muslim, also discovers unexpected grace and humanity. On his “hajj of defiance,” Sharma finds fellowship with Shia Muslims, also outside Orthodox Islam, and unexpected solace in the confessions between perfect strangers such as Mohammed, who has come seeking forgiveness for his participation in an honor killing. Sharma falls when he circles the Kaaba, only to be helped up by the hands of unknown faithful, a sign, he too, will be forgiven.

But it is the confluence of Islam and Saudi influence over it that arouses some of the greatest conflict in Sharma.

“I need to separate Saudi from my faith,” he said.

As part of a growing number of reform-minded Muslims from writers Irshad Manji to Tariq Ramadan, Sharma is put off by the growing commercialization of Islam in Saudi (“the mallization of Mecca") and repulsed and deeply angered by the Wahhabi strain of Islam, often described as “austere” and “puritanical,” which is spreading through parts of the Muslim world.

Sharma clearly sees the Saudi destruction of its historical sites, since Wahhabism frowns on veneration of locations, as links to groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Da’esh) and its destruction of historic and holy sites in Iraq and Syria as part and parcel of the same destructive force that threatens to overwhelm the more moderate forms throughout the rest of the Muslim world with petrodollars and Saudi-funded mosques.

In Medina, where the Prophet Mohammad is buried, Sharma reflects, “Today’s Islam, which has been hijacked by a violent minority, would not be recognized by him.”

And yet, Sharma is able to come to reconcile his identity as a gay man and as Muslim in one of the most moving sections of the film. When unable to complete his final act of the Hajj, sacrificing a goat to commemorate the sacrifice of Abraham, in Saudi, Sharma moves full circle to India, to complete the ritual, finding the spiritual peace he seeks.

“I have emerged from my Hajj a better Muslim,” Sharma said. In doing so, he seems to have found the answer to his initial question.

While not really as unusual in its access as Sharma claims- thousands of hajjis come home with reams of video and selfies- nonetheless, “A Sinner in Mecca” is a view of a personal quest to reconcile the personal self with the self in faith, a quest that is as universal as it is compelling to watch.

"A Sinner in Mecca" runs through Oct. 15 at the Digital Gym Cinema. Please check the website for time and details.

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