Parvez Sharma and Sandi Dubowski at Toronto International Film Festival 2007
Report From Toronto 2007: A Jihad For Love
A Jihad for Love explores the complex and sometimes life-threatening crossroads and differences of Islam and homosexuality. Filmed in twelve countries over a period of six years, the documentary was directed and co-produced by Parvez Sharma. Several of the film's participants were on hand at the Toronto International Film Festival. Director and co-producer Parvez Sharma's blog details his festival experiences, the doc's political and social context, and media and community reactions. The response has varied from hostility to healing including hate responses and footage screened on Oprah in her recent "Gays around the World" program that featured one of the film's subjects.
The focus of this interview is on the filmmaking process and outreach. Sandi Dubowski, who also produced, is well-known in the documentary community for spearheading an outreach campaign around the film Trembling Before G-d to affect change for queer Orthodox Jews—either one Hasidic rabbi at a time at small underground screenings or to packed houses at Film Forum. His outreach continues to this day. Trembling on the Road, a featurette that documents the impact of Trembling Before G-d and includes updates on the subject's lives, is making house party rounds.
Sharma and Dubowski will tour festivals worldwide with A Jihad for Love. To Sharma, the full impact of his film will be ascertained many years from now "by how many lives it transformed, how many communities it opened up, and what its contribution artistically and from a social activism point was to the documentary form."
Parvez, congratulations on Toronto. It must be great to have worked so long and have a kickoff like that. How was it for you?
Toronto was a profoundly moving and extremely empowering experience. To birth a film after six years and then to actually find it holds up the mirror to a very wide spectrum of the audience is heartwarming. There were standing ovations and one Iranian woman came up to me after a screening and said 'I am straight and I am a devout Muslim, I came here expecting a film that would critique my faith. I leave with a poem to Islam'. Another man, a gay Muslim refugee was so moved, that he had to be helped out of the theater, crying, saying that the film was so closely about his own experiences of pain, alienation and loss of home and nation that he was not able to finish seeing it. In a time when Islam is so misunderstood and under a great deal of attack from within and without, it was empowering to see this intensely Muslim work be affirmed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Sandi, where did you meet Parvez?
We met in January 2002 at an interfaith panel—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—for Trembling Before G-d during its theatrical release in a Washington D.C. cinema. Parvez approached me for advice on the film; he had an idea for the movie but hadn't filmed anything yet. By the fall of 2002, I came on board as producer.
Sandi, can you say a few things about your process working solely as a producer since you are also a director?
I definitely had to learn how to support a director's vision without imposing my own. I think early on I began advocating for the film to shift from stories that Parvez was focusing on in US, UK and Canada to being a film that told the story of what it was like to negotiate gay or lesbian life in Muslim nations. That we agreed on. But Parvez and I come from really different backgrounds - immigrant and US citizen, brown and white, Muslim and Jewish - and these definitely affected how we relate to the issues, to the film industry here in the US, to each other and to every aspect of this challenging work. So I have learned a lot about fear and a lot about ego and how to forge a common mission despite the differences that often roil these kinds of global collaborations.
What did you learn from Trembling to apply to Jihad?
There are big differences but a lot of similarities too. One is the commitment to working with people who have experienced great trauma and pain and being there in the long haul for them when the camera is turned of. Parvez has really taken on that responsibility, that devotion to the people in the film and their lives.
Two, is the experience of turning a movie into a movement and applying all my experience with Trembling to A Jihad for Love. An amazing web of networks have carried us forward and helped us overcome the many hurdles we have faced. I have been able to leverage so much of the success of Trembling for A Jihad for Love—funders, press, festival directors, crew, connections.
I think Islam is in a very different political and religious place than Judaism today and I am learning a lot from the process.
Parvez, what were some of your biggest creative challenges?
As a Muslim filmmaker and someone who does not come from the west or any western way of thought and documentary filmmaking, the need to accurately and faithfully depict the many worlds of Islam, without exoticizing or orientalizing the other, was a significant challenge for me. Another profound challenge as a documentary filmmaker engaged in the business of truth-telling was to invent ways of depicting something as intangible and as personal as faith. As the primary cameraperson on the film as well, this was a constant process of discovery and what helped tremendously was the really close relationships I was able to develop with all of my subjects.
What was it like shooting and directing?
In many ways being a Muslim enabled me to film with a Muslim lens and a great deal of understanding of Islam. For example, I knew what camera choices to make around filming a quran or filming people praying in a mosque. The shared commonality of Islam with my subjects often required me to be the one filming them. Also, camera crews were sometimes not an option simply because I was filming after long periods of trust building and filming the deeply personal. I was also often filming exteriors while pretending to be a tourist and there was a sense of danger so in many situations I just had to operate the camera myself.
Sandi, can you talk a little about the financing, I think other filmmakers would be interested in how it all came together.
This was a project shot in twelve countries and nine languages so fundraising was especially immense. However, I knew that European broadcasters would fund a project on Islam and that we could create co-productions. Only after we forged a co-production with Channel 4 (UK), ZDF-Arte (France/Germany), SBS (Australia) and LOGO (US) with our sales agents, Andrew Herwitz of Film Sales Company and Linda Saetre of Saetre Films, did I really even start approaching donors and foundations. It would be easier for them to come on board at a the mid-point for post-production when they knew they were supporting something real and vetted by five international TV stations and a work that would have a broadcast audience of hundreds of millions.
We also have around thirty-five foundations supporting the work ranging from major foundations like The Sundance Documentary Fund, The Hartley Film Foundation to a number of small gifts from gay and lesbian family funds with The Horizon Foundation. We threw gala benefit parties in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, and Washington D.C. forming Host Committees from a number of worlds—gay and lesbian, Muslim, Arab, human rights, philanthropy, South Asian, social justice. In New York City, we had 300 people on the Host Committee. So there are hundreds of donors to the project.
Out of our Boston Gala, we met Michael Huffington, who came on board as an Executive Producer while we were locking picture. We met the people from The Katahdin Foundation out of our work organizing the Bay Area Gala and they came on board as co-producers.
Sandi, I recently interviewed Frederick Wiseman and he said something interesting. I asked him if he saw documentary film as tool for social or political change. He said no, that he doesn't think it's possible to assess the impact of a film, because people in a democracy have many sources of information—movies, books, magazines, newspapers, the internet, radio, etcetera. He then said he knows of no example of a single work producing political change. Does that surprise you?
I, not surprisingly, completely disagree. Just a few nights ago, I was at a dinner and reconnected with someone, Josh, who was at our [Trembling Before G-d] Los Angeles Premiere who grew up Orthodox and who is gay. I still remember his sobbing and wailing at the screening. He told me he hyperventilated for the first time that night. His body did not know how to even process Trembling Before G-d. It was the first time he saw his experience onscreen and actually in any media. This changed his life. Multiply by the eight million or so people who have seen the work and you witness a tipping point in Judaism.
The most concrete political policy change is that last winter, after years of intense discussion and debate, the Conservative Movement made a bold and historic policy change: legalizing the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and the ability to perform same-sex unions. So I am curious what Wiseman would say that.
If you could make Trembling all over, or take it out into the world again, what would you do differently?
I am really happy with how everything happened. Every film has its own unique journey and every step led to the next.
Do you think festival, theatrical or broadcast exposure has as much impact on social change as targeted outreach, like community or university screenings?
I believe in a mix. I do think platforms like cinemas can be turned into town halls and create social change. With Trembling Before G-d, I saw the audience at Film Forum transform over the four months we were there. Towards the middle of our run, more and more religious Jews were coming—they became very curious about all this attention to their community and people were amazed because they expected an attack on Orthodox Judaism and instead found a film with a deep love for the community and Jewish tradition. Remember too that traditional members of the community did not watch TV or go to movies so I had to organize underground screenings in Hasidic homes.
Parvez Sharma on location in Istanbul
photo by Ismail Necmi
Parvez, what are your general outreach plans with A Jihad for Love?
It is critical to do outreach with communities of Muslims everywhere. Given that there are more than a billion Muslims in the world and they represent roughly one sixth of all humanity, we are talking large numbers. I feel that this is the right time to begin discussions on sexuality within Islam and the rules of engagement within Muslim outreach need to be worked at carefully. I know that the film will also need to be seen in Muslim nations where traditional models of dissemination through film festivals will not be an option, so we will need to work through underground networks of contacts I have already developed over many years of work. Also in terms of outreach, the film has tremendous responsibility in trying to educate western audiences around Islam, told from the point of view of its most unlikely storytellers, gay and lesbian Muslims.
What are some specific plans?
Parvez: We will need to turn cinemas into spaces where discussions and debates become the norm and the outreach model of the film will in fact be propelled by very significant and intense audience engagement. I plan to invite Muslim religious scholars and activists into these debates because for me the end of making a film is just the beginning of a movement and filmmakers who spend a significant part of their lives creating work such as this need to be fully involved in making sure it has maximum possible impact in the world.
Dubowski: I think similarly, it is to have A Jihad for Love open hearts and minds.
Parvez, what do you hope you'll be saying about change in the queer Muslim community, maybe ten years from now?
Questions such as this are difficult for me to answer because I feel that I am only at the tip of the iceberg. What I know already is that the film is changing hearts, minds and mindsets. What audiences bring to the theaters and what they leave with are remarkable. There already seems to be a building awareness of the complexities of Islam and understanding that it is not a problematic monolith. I can only say and hope that in many years the longevity and the impact of this film will be assessed in terms of how it was a pioneering and courageous effort to start a critical discourse and I certainly don't feel that the discourse will have ended lets say ten years from now. It will continue for a long time to come.