Here in the United States, individuals from all backgrounds support gay rights and, most recently, gay marriage, which these days is in the news literally every day. With this in mind, an eye-opening, deeply personal new documentary, titled A SINNER IN MECCA, takes on extra-special meaning. Its director is Parvez Sharma, an Indian-born Muslim who is openly gay: a fact of life that puts his very life at risk.
For after all, being gay in the Muslim world is a crime that is punishable by death. An individual may be beheaded, in public for all to see, simply because he is gay. Nonetheless, Sharma refuses to hide his sexual preference. Back in 2007, he made a documentary, titled A JIHAD FOR LOVE, which is about gay Muslims. For directing this film, and publicizing it, Sharma has been publicly labeled an “infidel” by those whom he describes as the “violent minority” who have “hijacked” his religion. So understandably, he views himself as a “marked man.”
Compared to what gays face in other parts of the world, Sharma is living a relative safe and easy life. He resides in New York and, at the outset of A SINNER IN MECCA, he marries the person he loves. The two now are not husband and wife. They are spouses, and their union is a joyous occasion. But Sharma also is a Muslim, and he is serious about his religion. So given his lifestyle and his sexuality, where does he fit in? Or does he fit in? How can he reconcile his religion and his sexual preference? “Is it possible for me to be a good Muslim?” he asks. “Islam would condemn my wedding,” he adds, “but Islam has always been a central part of my very being.”
In order to deal with this crisis of faith, Sharma sets out on a potentially perilous journey. He begins a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which he films on his I-Phone. During this journey, he views himself as a “pilgrim in hiding.” And what he sees and experiences are what makes A SINNER IN MECCA so riveting, and so revealing. The images Sharma films are better seen than described. However, one that must be cited, because it is so illuminating, involves the presence and location of a Starbucks.
At its core, A SINNER IN MECCA examines a host of questions that transcend Sharma and his personal quest. With much potency, the film refutes the notion that all those who practice Islam think alike, and act alike, and view their religion and the world around them from the same perspective. Taking this further, Sharma stresses that not all those who practice Islam are terrorists-in-training. But he does point out that, today, the religion has been taken over by men who have their own agendas, and who will resort to violence against anyone who is of a different mind.
Near the end of the film, Sharma sums it all up by declaring: “The Islam I love is one of peace and redemption. Contemporary Islam is at war with itself, and I have fought hard not to be a casualty.” But he also puts forth ideas that transcend the specifics of Islam. In A SINNER IN MECCA, Sharma asks: Does your religion, whatever that religion may be, accept you, and all your issues, all your so-called “faults”? Or is it up to you to embrace your religion and all its tenets, no matter what?
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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