New York-based filmmaker Parvez Sharma was haunted by the question, “Is it possible for someone like me to be a good Muslim?” Openly gay and married to a New York-based musician, Sharma was unsure if his religion would accept him because of his orientation. It was this quest for an answer that led him on a perilous journey.
“The only way to prove that I was a good Muslim and there was place for me in Islam would be to take a journey to Mecca,” says Sharma, who also decided to film his journey in a city, where men and women come from all over the world to wash their sins. Filmmaking is forbidden in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, corporal punishment, fines and death. Sharma’s first film, A Jihad for Love (2007), dealt with homosexual Muslims and had made him a target for clerics and extremists. “I was terrified for months before that journey. Everyone knew that I was an openly gay Muslim man and the risk to even enter that city was enormous,” says Sharma, who even wrote a will before he left for Haj.
Shot on his camera phone and two small cameras that “looked like phones” that he smuggled in, A Sinner in Mecca moves from doubt to despair and eventually becomes a direct challenge to the Saudi Arabia and its version of Wahabi Islam. “My film is not an attack on Islam. It’s an attack on Wahabi Islam, which is at the root of the ideology that ISIS has,” says Sharma, who found himself, very often, at the wrong end of the baton of the Muttawas (religious police) and was told to stop filming on many occasions. His footage was deleted more than once. “One had to hold the camera for at least 15 seconds to get a decent shot. If you would stand in the same spot for too long, the Muttawas would notice,” says Sharma.
The film, which will be screened at the Hot Docs festival in Canada, is a disquiet and restless narrative. One sees Sharma as he gets closer to the Kabba, the stampede, the lack of water, filth on the streets while going towards Arrafat (a place one visits during the Haj), and eventually the way history has been wiped out, in and around Mecca, with “ugly” concrete structures making their way to “Mecca Vegas”. In the film, one can spot a mall 700 feet away from the Kabba. “They have actually demolished the house where the Prophet lived and have built toilets in that space. We hear such adulterated accounts of this journey from other Hajis that we don’t get to know the whole truth. It is a capitalist landscape of destruction,” says Sharma.
With word spreading about A Sinner in Mecca, hate mail and threats to Sharma’s life are now piling on. “The Haj gave me validation. It eventually became a question of me accepting Islam on my own terms,” says Sharma.