International: Film: "Jihad for Love" documents the lives of gay Muslims

The Guardian
"A controversial film about gay Muslims is more a labour of love than a call to arms."
Early on in the More4 documentary A Jihad for Love, which receives its much anticipated world premiere at the Toronto International Film festival on Sunday, a Muslim man and his two daughters are enjoying a coastal drive in South Africa. It's a happy scene, yet the easy banter belies the hardship this family has endured. The man, Mushin Hendricks, is a former imam who was cast out by his community when he declared his homosexuality. The girls' mother has since remarried, and when Hendricks asks them what they would do if he were arrested, the answer comes without hesitation. The elder child, combining filial love with the lessons of her Islamic education, says she would ask that officials spare him a protracted death by stoning, and kill him with the first rock.
Dignity and despair are woven tightly together in A Jihad for Love, a six-year endeavour by Indian film-maker Parvez Sharma that explores Islam and homosexuality. Without a distributor in the US, the film is one of the hottest tickets at the festival, and nobody knows what will happen at the first public screening. The film-makers are hoping it will be received respectfully and inspire an open-minded dialogue. That would certainly accord with Sharma's approach in making the $2m documentary, which eschews the shock-and-awe school of investigative reporting in favour of a compassionate portrait of devout Muslims struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality.

"All the people in my film are coming out as Muslims," says the 34-year-old film-maker. "Islam is the heart of this film. They are proud to be gay, but fundamentally they're coming out as Muslims and saying they're as Muslim as anybody else, and their Islam is as true and fundamental as anybody else's."

Each of the men and women profiled in A Jihad for Love is courageous, defiant and resourceful. Mazen was one of the Cairo 52, a group arrested in May 2001 aboard a floating gay nightclub on the Nile. He was beaten, forced to stand trial twice on "habitual debauchery" charges, and sentenced to a total of four years in prison, where he was raped. He eventually moved to Paris, where we see him no longer afraid to reveal his face, making friends, moving into his own flat, and calling his mother in Egypt to say he misses her.

Maryam is a Moroccan lesbian in Paris whose lover lives in Egypt. The teachings of her faith mean she still believes she deserves to be punished for her sexuality, and it was only recently that she was able to use the term "lesbian" for the first time. "Each of the characters you see on the screen had to negotiate that relationship with the camera," Sharma says. "It has taken me years to get to know them and earn their trust."

Sharma himself had a secular upbringing in India, where "Islam was all around me". As a gay man, he was acutely aware of his country's stance on homosexuality. "And as long as I wasn't marching around and proclaiming it, things were fine. India is a culture that tolerates same-sex behaviour between men and women, but it can't be in-your-face."

After graduating from university in India and working at the Star News channel/NDTV in Asia and the BBC, he arrived in the UK to study for his masters degree - he holds three - in broadcast journalism at the University of Wales. Then he moved to the east coast of the US in late 2000, and everything changed. "My whole religious identity and the colour of my skin became an issue," Sharma says. "After 9/11, I was caught up in a climate that made gay Muslims like me a triple minority: we were facing condemnation for being gay as we had done from our own communities; we were targeted and ostracised because of the way we looked; and even within gay communities, we were regarded as exotic outsiders.

"Those forces came together and I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to start a discussion of Islam that hadn't been heard before. I feel I was called upon to make this film. This was very necessary for my being a Muslim and a gay man."

Sharma compiled 400 hours of footage from a dozen countries ranging from Iraq to Pakistan to the UK. The nature of the work placed him at considerable personal risk. He adopted hardcore guerrilla film-making tactics, pretending to be a tourist in one country, a worker for an AIDS charity in another. Wherever he went, he asked friends to keep copies of footage and destroy the tapes once he had successfully smuggled the masters out of the country.

Sharma admits he thought long and hard about the title of the film, and is very clear about its message. "A very loud minority has hijacked my religion and its pulpits. To see Islam depicted every day as a faith of violence is very frustrating to me. It's something many Muslims face today: do they go with the Islam being preached by a violent minority, or do we seek the fundamentals of this religion, in which we are taught not to harm any human life? Jihad represents a life struggle, and I call myself a jihadi with pride, and so do all the others in this film. Our struggle is one of faith and understanding".

By: Jeremy Kay

06 September 2007