A Sinner in Mecca is a moving, brave and intensely personal documentary, covertly filmed in Saudi Arabia, when the director, a gay Muslim, undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca to explore what it means to be a Muslim today. Emily Wright reviews.
Following Jihad for Love, Parvez Sharma’s 2007 film on the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality, A Sinner in Mecca is his autobiographical follow-up, an attempt to unpack his complicated relationship with Islam.
To do this he goes to the heart of Islam, the ‘frontline’ so to speak, embarking on the hajj, the devotional pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime. He turns his camera on himself, setting out to answer the question: Is it possible for someone like him to be a good Muslim?
“I need evidence that my faith is strong enough to survive this journey,” he explains early in the film, and the video-journal that unravels before our eyes provides precisely that. Filmed on a camera phone and two smuggled in cameras, there is a visceral quality to the footage that perfectly underpins the message.
Sharma’s pilgrimage, as a filmmaker and gay Muslim, is a double transgression, a ‘hajj of defiance’. Filming is forbidden, while homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. The risks undertaken are introduced early when a chatroom conversation on Manjam, a popular gay dating website in the Middle East, reveals a beheading, the cause of which was the man’s rumoured homosexuality.
As the film progresses the personal journey and the uncertainty and self-doubt of being a gay Muslim gives way to insightful reflections on religious extremism, rampant commercialisation, sectarian battles and Wahhabism, the bastardised brand of conservatism that Saudi Arabia is trying to export to Muslim communities around the world. Never-before filmed streets challenge our perception of these holy sites – trash piled high, the detritus of a million people that visit the site feel utterly profane. The spirituality of the place often gives way to mechanical gesture.
Never-before filmed streets challenge our perception of these holy sites – trash piled high, the detritus of a million people that visit the site feel utterly profane. The spirituality of the place often gives way to mechanical gesture.“My faith seems to disappear in this very place,” Sharma confides.
However, for the viewer at least, desperation gives way to irony and humour as he takes a coffee break in an air-conditioned Starbucks in a shopping centre attached to the holy site. A mecca for capitalism – the pilgrims turning into consumers. It is this voicing of the complexities of contemporary Islam, of expanding the narrative rather than simplifying it, that is at the heart of Sharma’s new film – a must-see on the festival circuit.