Filmmaker uncovers the struggle of gay Muslims in ‘A Jihad for Love’

Parvez Sharma, director of "A Jihad for Love," addresses a crowd at the Director Guild of America headquarters. The documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims was filmed surreptitiously in 12 countries over six years.
Parvez Sharma, director of “A Jihad for Love,” addresses a crowd at the Director Guild of America headquarters. The documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims was filmed surreptitiously in 12 countries over six years.
(Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“AJihad for Love” may not be the blockbuster movie of the season, but the new documentary about the plight of gay and lesbian Muslims is enjoying a degree of acclaim as it casts light on a subject often shrouded in mystery.

The film’s gay Muslim director, Parvez Sharma, has spent the last year touring theaters and festivals around the world.

This month, he and his movie arrived in Los Angeles.

“A Jihad for Love” was the documentary centerpiece last week at Outfest, a gay and lesbian film festival. On Friday it opens at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 Theatres in West Hollywood and Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs.

Filmed surreptitiously in 12 countries over six years, the movie offers a window into the distraught lives of gay and lesbian Muslims as they struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their devotion to a faith that condemns their way of life.

Some are beaten or imprisoned. Others are forced to flee their homelands. Several have their faces obscured in the film to protect their identities and their families from reprisals.

But Sharma, 35, a former print and broadcast journalist in India, said he did not intend to attack Islam but to open a dialogue about a dilemma that forces people to endure lives of quiet desperation.

And therein lies the meaning behind the film’s title: Jihad, often equated with holy war, means “struggle” or “to strive in the path of God,” Sharma said.

“I know there is a deep hunger for this film,” said Sharma, who shot the movie, his first feature documentary, in Egypt, Turkey, India, South Africa, France and other countries.

“There are vast differences among Muslims on how to deal with homosexuality,” he added. “For the most part, they choose to ignore it as long as it is kept private.”

The problem for many of Sharma’s subjects, he said, is that they refuse to keep silent or ignore their desire to love despite the risks. And that invariably leads to conflict with their faith, their families, their countries and themselves.

Consider the experience of Mazen, a twentysomething Egyptian who in the film is arrested in a raid of a gay disco and then raped in prison. He flees to Paris before a second, longer prison sentence can be imposed. Still, he maintains his faith. “I’m sure God has a reason for all that has happened to me,” he says. “I know that he is always with me.”

And then there is Maryam, a lesbian also living in Paris who maintains a long-distance relationship with her partner, Maha, in Cairo.

In one of their visits, Maha asks: “Why can’t we be together and at the same time live with God?”

Maryam replies: “I don’t know if it’s possible. I don’t know.”

Muhsin Hendricks, an imam from South Africa, loses his position as a teacher after he reveals his homosexuality. Instead of turning bitter, however, he devotes himself to convincing fellow Muslims that the Koran has no ban on gay love -- a position rejected by an Islamic scholar with whom he meets in the film.

“We will consider you a murtad, an apostate, and out of the fold of Islam,” the scholar says. “Homosexuality is a crime not only in Islam, in every divine religion, and is punishable in Islam by death.”

To make “A Jihad for Love,” Sharma teamed up with producer Sandi DuBowski, who made the 2001 documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” which depicted the struggle of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.

Although the two films tackle similar terrain, Sharma’s movie was especially difficult to make because of the dangers, including police surveillance and the threat of arrest, which he was able to avoid.

Sharma -- who wears jeans, red-rimmed glasses and a necklace with a gold pendant featuring the name of God in Arabic, “Allah” -- said he often posed as a tourist while filming, and sandwiched his interviews between innocuous footage.

“The biggest struggle was to establish relationships of trust with each of the people in the film,” he said.

His movie debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, it has been shown at festivals in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, India, Greece, Turkey, South Africa and England. Sharma said friends also have sneaked copies into Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia for underground screenings.

The film has generated some backlash. The government in Singapore has banned it, Sharma said, adding that the Muslim Judicial Council in South Africa has declared he and Muhsin apostates. And Sharma said he has received death threats on his blog, which otherwise features positive feedback about the film.

At last week’s Outfest screening, several Muslims in the audience -- gay and straight -- said they were pleased to discover that Sharma portrayed Islam in a respectful manner.

“As a Muslim woman, I found your film incredibly beautiful and spiritually inspiring,” Nagwa Ibrahim, 30, a civil rights attorney, told Sharma during a question-and-answer session.

“I was very moved by the humanity of your film,” she added.

At a reception following the movie, Aryana Farshad, a documentary film producer and director originally from Iran, said she was surprised by the movie’s even-handed tone.

“He had the courage to talk about homosexuality and Islam, and he did not trash the face of Islam,” Farshad said. “I really felt for those kids -- they had to leave their countries because they were homosexuals.”

Sharma said the perseverance of his characters and their willingness to speak openly about their struggle renewed his own commitment to Islam -- a subject he will be addressing next month when his movie is shown in San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley, Denver, Philadelphia and other cities.

“I found deep respect for the religion . . . through these people, through their immense religiosity,” he said. “I have come closer than I have ever before to deep, profound faith.”