By Gabrielle Glaser
Sep 24, 2015
Arranging to meet the filmmaker Parvez Sharma is a little like setting up an appointment with an extremely polite spy. He asks to rendezvous in a public place — a Starbucks in SoHo where the noise level is high, the tables distant and the volume of customers great. His boundaries are clearly drawn: no discussion of his husband, his friends, his Manhattan neighborhood or his family. He arrives a half-hour early.
Mr. Sharma’s discretion is no doubt borne of his experience growing up gay in a conservative city in India, but it has deepened since the release of his 2007 documentary, “A Jihad for Love,” which depicted the struggle of gay Muslims around the world to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. (Homosexuality is generally condemned in modern Islamic societies, said Everett Rowson, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.) After “Jihad,” Mr. Sharma was labeled an infidel, and in the intervening years, he has gotten more death threats than he cares to recall.
His new documentary, “A Sinner in Mecca,” about his 2011 hajj, or journey to Islam’s most sacred sites in Saudi Arabia, put him at even greater risk. Saudi religious police allow selfies or short videos, Mr. Sharma said, but they forbid pilgrims from taking extensive footage of the hajj, which attracts up to three million faithful a year. While Mr. Sharma said there were government-sanctioned videos of the ritual, his documentary shows images of the annual pilgrimage that Saudi officials do not want others to see.
At one moment, “A Sinner in Mecca” seems to eerily anticipate the events of Thursday, when, government officials said, more than 700 people were killed and almost 900 were injured as pilgrims surged through a tunnel en route to one of the rituals. “This is the place of stampedes,” the film’s voice-over says.
Despite Mr. Sharma’s notoriety as a gay filmmaker — the new film includes footage of his 2011 New York wedding to an atheist musician identified only as Dan — he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punishable by beatings, jail time and death.
The documentary was shown at Cinema Village on East 12th Street this month; it is available on iTunes and can be streamed on Netflix starting next Sunday.
Omair Paul, a first-generation Pakistani-American who grew up in Queens and is now a graduate student at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights as well as the United Nations representative of Muslims for Progressive Values, moderated a brief Q. and A. after a screening at Cinema Village.
“I was fascinated by his exploration,” Mr. Paul said in a separate interview. As the film makes clear, he added, the issue is less “about Islam accepting Parvez, but Parvez accepting Islam.”
Mr. Sharma said he hoped that “A Sinner in Mecca” would inspire questions among Muslims everywhere. “Islam’s reformation is long overdue,” he said. “Maybe Muslims like me will be the reformers.”
Growing up in the northern Indian city of Saharanpur, where Muslims made up a sizable minority, he was routinely bullied for being gay, Mr. Sharma said. He found solace in his mother’s Bollywood film magazines, spending hours cutting out pictures of his favorite stars to design posters for the fantastical movies he dreamed of making.
An excerpt from Parvez Sharma’s documentary, “A Sinner in Mecca,” in which he films the Kaaba, a most sacred site. By HARAM FILMS on Publish Date September 24, 2015. Photo by Haram Films. Watch in Times Video »
“It was an alternate reality I built for myself because the real world did not seem to offer much,” Mr. Sharma said.
As a young man, he studied English literature at the University of Calcutta, and he went on to earn master’s degrees in mass communications, broadcast journalism and video in New Delhi; in Cardiff, Wales; and at American University in Washington. In New Delhi, where he worked as a television reporter, he learned that the truth was often more compelling than fiction, a discovery that led him to documentary filmmaking.
He moved to New York in 2003 and has worked as a producer for the news program “Democracy Now!” He also contributes to The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post as a commentator on Islam and racial and political issues. In 2008, Out magazine named him one of the Top 100 gay men and women who have helped shape culture.
“A Sinner in Mecca” opens with Mr. Sharma sitting at a laptop in his apartment, chatting online with Mohammed, a gay man in the Saudi city of Medina. Mohammed describes visiting a market to pick up some things for his mother, only to witness the beheading of a man rumored to be gay. “Please know you are not alone,” Mr. Sharma writes. The film then cuts to videotape footage of the scene, stopping just before the executioner’s ax strikes the man’s neck. It sets the stage for the anxious 79 minutes that follow.
Mr. Sharma, a soft-spoken man with chiseled features and a trim black beard, said he was “terrified” that he would die at the hands of the Saudis. Nevertheless, he felt called to make the pilgrimage — it is considered a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once in their lives — and hoped especially to reconcile his faith with his sexuality.
In the film, Mr. Sharma, 41, struggles visibly with his fear, even as he prays. He also explores the enduring grief he felt after being rebuked by his late mother, a poet, for not finding a “nice girl” to marry.
The documentary, largely recorded on an iPhone strapped to Mr. Sharma’s neck with rubber bands, shows the pilgrimage in unflinching detail. The result is a religious reality film, but also a piercing indictment of Saudi Arabia, which influences, Mr. Sharma said, millions of pilgrims annually.
“I am not confronting Islam,” he said in the interview at Starbucks. “What I’m confronting is the Saudi version of Islam.”
A scene from "A Sinner in Mecca." Mr. Sharma shot the film despite a prohibition against pilgrims taking extensive footage. Credit Haram Films
Islam there is rooted in Wahhabism, a form of the religion that Mr. Sharma describes as “regressive, cruel and puritanical.” It is no accident, he said, that Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers who staged the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi.
While it is difficult to capture spirituality on screen, Mr. Sharma manages in the film to convey his wonder as he worships at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and circles the cube-shaped Kaaba, the sacred shrine at the mosque’s center. But he also portrays the hajj’s harrowing physical demands: wakeful nights in transit, throngs of people and an unquenchable thirst, with no water in sight, in the blistering heat. He also documents some stunning confessions.
In one scene, Mr. Sharma records a late-night meeting with a man named Mohammed who says he has murdered his sister-in-law in an honor killing in Pakistan.
At a gleaming mall where products from Swatch, Nine West and Kentucky Fried Chicken are sold just 1,000 feet from the Kaaba, Mr. Sharma finds a Starbucks (its logo of a topless mermaid replaced by an image of green waves and stars). There, he hears another man’s pained recounting of how his wife had been groped by fellow pilgrims after the couple was accidentally separated as they circled the Kaaba.
Mr. Sharma also documents the heaps of garbage left behind by the faithful.
“There was nothing sacred in those streets, let me tell you,” Mr. Sharma said at the SoHo Starbucks, recalling the piles of plastic bags, water bottles and papers. One man in his group told him: “I’m glad they don’t allow non-Muslims so that the Western world cannot see this.”
At one point, officials saw Mr. Sharma recording a prolonged scene, confiscated his phone and destroyed the footage.
Despite his unnerving experiences, Mr. Sharma said he felt as if the hajj had made him a better Muslim. It also allowed him, he said at Starbucks, to make peace with the memory of his mother, who died of cancer when he was 21. Not long before her death, he came out to her. Her anger was relentless — and so was Mr. Sharma’s shame. But during the hajj, in his sleepless, dreamlike state, Mr. Sharma felt her forgiveness — and he, in turn, forgave her.
“I cried a lot,” he said. “I unloaded a lot of baggage there.”
Many reviewers have praised the film, including a New York Times critic who said, “Mr. Sharma has created a swirling, fascinating travelogue and a stirring celebration of devotion.” Screenings in New York, Los Angeles and Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Arab population, have sold out. But he has been hounded online — and in person. After a June screening at a British film festival, a group of Saudi women bombarded him with accusations about insulting Islam and the Holy Land. They then followed him outside to heckle him.
The attacks, Mr. Sharma said, “are a heavy burden.” Asked if he saw a therapist, he paused for a beat, and smiled. “No,” he said. “But maybe I should.”