Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Jihad for Love: Can Your Faith Really Kill You?

March 27, 2008

A Jihad for Love: Can your faith really kill you?

A film about gay Muslims will surprise a Western audience

Parvez Sharma

Inevitably, Parvez Sharma filmed some moving testimonies in A Jihad for Love, a collection of real-life stories that show what it is like to be gay or lesbian and living within, or in the shadow, of Islam. The stories come from Iran, Turkey, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

In one of those quirks of timing, the film will be shown on Sunday at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in the wake of the controversy around the case of Mehdi Ka-zemi, the gay Iranian whose deportation back to Iran was halted recently after an indecent, indeed shaming, amount of prevarication on the part of the Home Office. An Iranian lesbian, Pegah Emambakhsh, is also seeking asylum in this country.

But Sharma isn't your typical campaigning film-maker. He shows how tough life can be for his subjects though he believes strongly that gay activists have behaved arrogantly in their condemnation of Iran which is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon of "Iran-bashing". He adds: "Around 70 per cent of Iran's population is under 30: issues are being talked about, it's a vibrant society. And don't forget history: a long time ago the West looked to the East as a place where homosexuality was tolerated, sometimes celebrated."

He doesn't believe that the Iranian authorities are conducting an antigay witch-hunt (this despite the widely distributed pictures of two young, allegedly gay, men who were supposedly executed) and – as his film makes clear – despite the difficulty of their lives, many Islamic gay men and women hold their faith dear.

Sharma says this was a "very personal" film to make: he is a Muslim himself and dislikes the polarisation of discussion of Islam "between the Jihadists and the Bush supporters". It makes for difficult viewing, forcing us belief-bare Western liberals to examine why gays would have anything to do with a religionthat rejects them at every turn, and sometimes violently.

Sharma filmed in secret in many countries for six years, amassing more than 400 hours of footage. He would put tourist-related material at the beginning and end of each tape so that if Customs took an interest in what he was doing it would find innocuous pretty pictures. He found his subjects through the internet and underground gay or HIV organisations. As a Muslim he could make himself "invisible" – it would have been much harder, he says, as a white Western film-maker to travel and film as he did.

The film shows Imam Muhsin Hendricks, a Muslim man in South Africa publicly speaking out against the homophobia of Islam. We watch the flight of four gay men out of Iran in a desperate attempt to gain asylum. Two are afraid to show their faces. Nearly all have faith which they try, and inevitably fail, to square with their sexual orientation. They feel desperate that they will never see their families again, but know they have to get out. Kazemi's boyfriend was executed for sodomy; another man worries about the fate of his partner. "He was my introduction to love," he says.

One Egyptian, Mazen, recalls the lashing he received after being apprehended, with more than others, after attending a gay party. One half of a lesbian couple (Maha and Maryam), deeply in love, feels her faith has been compromised by her desire. Two Turkish lesbians, Ferda and Kiymet, go to visit Ferda's mother. Two of the Iranian men are granted asylum in Canada. "How can I be free when so many others aren't?" one says to his friend, who replies, with steely hope, "One day they will all be free."

Since filming, the subjects' lives have changed generally for the better, says Sharma, who reveals that three of the Iranians are now safely living in Canada – one has become a gay rights activist. The fourth has been granted asylum but is still waiting to enter the country. Muhsin has been given funding to set up a group for lesbian and gay Muslims. Mazen, living in Paris, is "trying to find work in a xenophobic France," says Sharma. "It's terribly difficult for me, having got so close to so many of them, not to be able to materially help them." Ferda and Kiymet have broken up.

Sharma doesn't believe homosexuality will become acceptable within Islam in his lifetime: "It is not top of the agenda," he says. But he hopes gays will make "significant advances" within Islam and that his film will be used as a "tool" for debate and also to give visibility to a group often rendered invisible.

However, he is also "tired" of playing politics: as a film-maker he doesn't want to be limited to making gay movies, or having "one identity". His next ambition, he says, laughing, is to go to Bollywood and make a Muslim musical.

— A Jihad for Love is showing at NFT1, National Film Theatre, London SE1, Sunday (6pm) and Monday (2pm). For details and booking for the LLGFF (from March 27 to April 10) see , or call 020-7928 3232

1 comment:

Small Blue Thing said...

Bismillah ar Rahman ir Rahim
Salaam Alaicum, dear brothers & sisters.

My love from Spain. I've been a while reading your blog, and I'm anxious to watch the movie.

Love and Baraka!