Film Review: A Sinner in Mecca

You will see never-before-filmed images of Muslim observances in this sincere, but at times self-indulgent, gay director’s journey back to his spiritual roots.
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Hopeless mission? Suicide mission, even? Mission of self-discovery? Whatever you want to call it, gay director Parvez Sharma’s resolve to go back to Saudi Arabia in search of his Muslim roots, at dangerous odds with his homosexuality, recorded in his documentary A Sinner in Mecca, was a bold—perhaps demented—decision.

“Islam is at war with itself, and I have fought hard not to be a casualty,” Sharma says as he embarks on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all devout Muslims are obligated to make at least once in their lifetime. As photography is strictly forbidden at sacred sites, Sharma smuggled in cameras, and even attached a cellphone to his neck with a rubber band.

The results he got are remarkable, a first-time viewing of the inside of the Muslim religion as it is today—in Sharma’s words, a government-supported bastardization of his faith bearing little resemblance to the beliefs of most Muslims. His most impressive capture is of the Kaaba, the sacred cube-shaped building in the center of Mecca, which all the pilgrims must try to actually touch. The sight of this roiling mass of thousands of mostly white-garbed believers snaking about, endlessly encircling this black box has a creepy, undeniably compelling fascination.

The fact that, as one man tells Sharma’s concealed camera, his wife was ruthlessly and disgustingly groped by countless men while in the most sacred religious observation is but one of the dirty secrets of what can go on during a hajj, not to mention the hideous amounts of trash the pilgrims leave in their wake. Apart from a few reprimands about his photography, it is indeed lucky that the director was not actually caught during his film’s most intense moments of religious “ecstasy,” but there have already been death threats made to him over the project.

After his A Jihad for Love, in which he supposedly said everything he wanted to about being a gay Muslim, Sharma rather soft-peddles the issue here, although he does mention the violent ends which homosexuals can meet in Saudi Arabia. Here, the focus is on his individual faith and continual questioning of it. I rather wish his questioning of it did not have to include the nauseating sacrifice of a goat by his own hand and, further, some narcissistically off-key shots of him displaying an inscrutable despair while covered in the poor beast’s blood. But there’s no gainsaying his singular achievement in literally lifting the veil on a religion, which at least in its present, government-sanctioned, ultra-conservative and violent interpretation, is indeed quite fearsome.

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