By Arundhati Roy
For a gay filmmaker, filming in Saudi Arabia poses two challenges: filming is prohibited in the country, and especially at the most sacred sites on the Haj; and homosexuality is punishable by death. However, that did not stop Parvez Sharma, a director of Indian origin who had previously directed A Jihad for Love, from filming his latest creation A Sinner in Mecca. Sharma risked death by merely taking the pilgrimage, a journey considered to be the greatest accomplishment in his religion. The openly gay filmmaker took the risk and shot his 80 minute long documentary, to be premiered at the Toronto HotDocs Festival, having endured the biggest Jihad there is, the struggle with the self.
A Sinner in Mecca is about his Haj in 2011. Being aware of the fact that Saudi religious police prohibits pilgrims from taking extensive footage of the Haj, Sharma smuggled in two small cameras and also put his iPhone to work. The result is a much personalized perspective of the religion like it has never been shown before. It includes his musings on the commercialization of the pilgrimage, the treatment of Shias by the Sunnis, the unhygienic conditions due to overcrowding, and, above all, the tremendous faith shown by millions of Muslims. There are images that the Saudi officials do not want others to see.
The notoriety shown by Parvez Sharma itself makes this clandestine view of the otherwise biased image of the pilgrimage a rebellious act in itself. In this case, his description of the film as a “Haj of defiance” suits the situation perfectly. The journey for Sharma is an attempt to understand and come to terms with the fact whether Islam can accommodate someone like him who would otherwise be viewed as a sinner. The element of tension in his cinematography facilitates in creating a highly dramatized tale.
In an interview with scroll.in when Parvez Sharma was asked about his faith in his religion, he said, “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 Haj 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,” he was quoted as saying to the website.
When asked about the purpose of the film in relation to Islam, this is what Sharma had to say:
“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,” he remarked.
“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.”