Gay Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma crossed several dangerous lines when documenting his 2010 hajj pilgrimage to Mecca on his iPhone for the newly released "A Sinner in Mecca."
Though it's discouraged by Saudi law to film inside Mecca's Grand Mosque and other sacred sites where Muslims complete their holy pilgrimage, more worrisome for Sharma were the region's harsh laws regarding homosexuality.
"There's a level of subversion here, and divine intervention as well," says the India-born, New York-based director, who openly identified as homosexual in his earlier film, 2007's "A Jihad For Love."
In the documentary "A Sinner in Mecca," which opens Friday at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Sharma explores the effect of Wahhabism — a puritanical strain of Islam fostered in Saudi Arabia — on the centuries-old pilgrimage while challenging his own faith in the face of adversity.
Sharma, whose previous documentary followed the lives of gay Muslims around the globe, spoke with The Times about the risks, rewards and blowback already generated by "A Sinner in Mecca."
The hajj is a difficult journey for most Muslims, both physically and spiritually. What compelled you to document yours?
The purpose of this film is to mount an open challenge to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. For me, it's not a film about Islam and homosexuality. I've done that before.
I think the export of Wahhabism has been the biggest Saudi project for the last century, and they have transferred it to every corner of the Muslim world. Communities have become increasingly conservative. The horrific ideology of ISIS and Al Qaeda would not exist without the Saudi Wahhabi doctrine. This is what they're teaching children in schools. This is at the root of all the problems in the Muslim world, in my humble opinion.
Your film features footage that someone else sent you of a man being executed by Saudi authorities allegedly for being homosexual. It's a type of horror we associate with terror groups. Was outing this type of barbarism your point?
Yes. It's ridiculous that in the 21st century, they're allowed to carry out beheadings on a routine basis. It's amazing the rest of the world does not say anything.
You'd already openly identified yourself as gay in your previous documentary, yet the Saudi government granted you a visa to enter the kingdom for hajj.
I never thought the Saudis would give me a visa. As you learn in the film, I go on the hajj with a Shia group, which I do deliberately [to conceal my identity], even though I'm Sunni.
I think I slipped through the cracks because they were issuing millions of visas at the time. If they had been looking, it wouldn't have been hard for the Saudis to know who I am.
Most Muslims learn early on that the hajj is at the heart of affirming your faith. Did you feel conflicted since it was a religious journey, but you were also making a film?
For me, it's the toughest journey I've taken in my entire life. It's clear I'm going as a pilgrim, but there's also the filmmaker half of my brain telling me there's no way you're not going to document the most important journey of your life.
Your religious self wonders if you're doing the right thing. Does it take away from being completely devout if you are also constantly filming? I had to deal with that conflict.
I felt I came out much stronger from the experience and that I made the hajj for thousands of gay Muslims who are probably too afraid to go. It was an enormous task to take on, but I came out the other end a better Muslim.
Some might assume you'd come out of a journey through this very conservative region, and its strain of Islam, denouncing your religion.
Islam may have turned its back on me, but Islam is also who I am. It's very hard to cut off your right hand and say I'll only function with my left hand from now on.
Faith sits together with every part of my being, and I don't know any other way to be than Muslim.
"A Sinner in Mecca" documents the good — the powerful experience of being at the Grand Mosque and actually touching the Kaaba — and the bad, which is the dictates of Wahhabism, the commercialization of hajj and the class system that exists, even during the pilgrimage.
It's a complex experience. I needed to be very honest with what is good and bad. I'm in the business of truth-telling.
There have been a couple of films the Saudis have commissioned about the hajj. I call them junket films because the reporters were chosen by them and led by Saudi minders from the Information Ministry.
Now that the film is making its way into the world, are you concerned about your safety?
I'm getting an enormous amount of hate mail and threats already, and the film is just a newborn. It's barely out there in the world. A lot of it is from my website [ASinnerInMecca.com], and the trailer on YouTube has gone completely viral.
The threats I'm getting are from people with no idea because they've not seen it. If you see the film, you get to see it's very respectful toward Islam, and it's a direct challenge to Saudis. The film makes that distinction.
Yeah, I'm terrified a little bit. I did not expect so much hate in the early life of the film. I thought it would happen later.
There are spokespeople out there who are former Muslims who have denounced their faith because of various life experiences. You could have easily been one of them.
Here's the difference between someone like [author and spokeswoman] Ayaan Hirsi Ali and me. She has turned her back on Islam and is out to attack it, and gets a lot of mileage out of doing that, especially from the right wing in this country.
I strongly feel if anything is to change in Islam, it's going to come from the believers. It will happen from the inside, not from people hurling stones and speaking on its behalf but not knowing what they're talking about. I'm a believer, so I really feel I have the ability to talk about it in a different way.
You also catch flack from Islamophobes, so essentially you're walking this tightrope between extremists and haters of all stripes.
It really is precarious. The very Muslims I'm seeking acceptance from are attacking me because I'm a gay man and because I made this film. As a Muslim, you are taught from a very young age that you do not mess with Mecca, and I'm doing exactly that.
Follow me on Twitter: @LorraineAli.
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