"I call it the Saudi selfie film," Indian-born, New York-based filmmaker and LGBT activist Parvez Sharma tells me. We're at Sheffield Doc/Fest talking about his new film, A Sinner in Mecca, ahead of its European premiere.
Shot secretly, mainly using an iPhone, his highly personal documentary is one of few visual accounts of the hajj – the holy pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim undertakes once in their life (as long as they're physically and financially able) – because it's forbidden to film there.
Sharma is no stranger to controversial filmmaking, though. His last doc, A Jihad For Love, about gay Muslims, was banned in many Middle Eastern countries. He's surprised at the intensity of negative responses this time round, often by people who haven't even seen the film. "I am facing this barrage of hate mail, of death threats," he says.
"As a Muslim, you should leave Mecca alone. By making this film, I'm being a transgressor. I'm crossing a line. And what makes it even more problematic is that I happen to be a gay Muslim man." So why did he do it? We caught up with Sharma to find out.
VICE: You've had positive reactions to this film, but also negative. What is it that touches a nerve; that you talk about your sexuality in the context of Mecca or that you filmed there?
Parvez Sharma: I think both. The gay Muslim angle is what my previous film, A Jihad for Love, is about. I was done coming out as a gay man. This film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I'm claiming the faith. I'm saying that I'm going to accept Islam but on my terms. That is what's problematic to people. But also, the very existence of the film – the fact this man went with an iPhone and two other cameras that look like phones into the most sacred space in Islam and dared to make an entire film around it – is what caused all this anger.
Did you know when you decided to undertake the hajj that you wanted to film it?
The personal journey was more important than the filming. But the filmmaker side of my brain thought, 'There's no way I'm not going to document this amazing journey that I'll only make once in my lifetime.' While in Saudi Arabia I had no idea if I'd come out alive. I had no idea if people would find out [who I was]. It's just a Google search away – you Google my name and everything I've done in the past comes up. I certainly didn't know if the footage would survive and make it out of the country.
During the month that I was in Saudi Arabia I was stopped by the religious police and they deleted some of my footage. People take pictures during the hajj because they want to carry back the memory of having been there so that's fairly common. But taking a picture is over in a couple of seconds.
As a filmmaker, you're there for longer, trying to get the shots from different angles, so you attract more attention. The religious police walk around with these sticks and they just whack you. It's ridiculous. I was at the wrong end of their sticks several times.
There are moments when you see people waving or giving a thumbs up to your camera. Other times where you see people – ordinary people, not religious police – who are quite critical of you for filming in such a holy place. Did you feel conflicted about it?
I make a distinction in the film between the Saudi version of Islam – Wahhabi Islam – and my version, which is completely different. The Saudi version is regressive, it's dangerous, it's about violence. The roots of the ISIS ideology come from Wahhabi Islam. Depiction of the human form is forbidden, so photography technically is banned according to the law of the country. But everywhere you go you see images of the damned King. It's so hypocritical.
In the past, the Saudi Ministry of Information has allowed a couple of films about the hajj where their minders would accompany the filmmaker who they had chosen to depict the hajj in a particular way. What I was doing was completely different, which is why the film is so gritty and talks about things the Saudis don't want you to talk about because they want to be seen in a positive light.
In Mecca, you visit a mall and you point out all the rubbish that's been left. You were clearly shocked by the commercialisation of the city. Is that something you blame on the Saudis?
I have so much to say against the Saudis. The Saudis have carried out a deliberate, systematic obliteration of Islamic history for several decades now. All of the 20th century, now going into the 21st, has been about Saudi Arabia trying its very best to destroy Islamic history.
One of the other things Saudi Islam frowns upon is idol worship so the graves of Islam's ancestors in Saudi Arabia can no longer be identified. They've destroyed the first house that the prophet Mohammed lived in with his wife and built a row of toilets.
Mecca is turning into Mecca Vegas. The skyline is constantly changing. They're building seven-star hotels and garish shopping malls. There's a building you see several times in the film called the Kingdom Tower. The architects were told it had to be built larger than Big Ben, it had to be the tallest clock face on the planet. It dwarfs the Kaaba [a holy structure within Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram]. There's a Starbucks several metres away from this ancient place. It's obscene.
Do you know many other gay people based in Saudi Arabia? What's everyday life like for them?
Because of my last film I got to know a lot of gay people in Saudi Arabia. We carefully established a vast underground network, sending these DVDs across the borders. I know for a fact that, in many Saudi Arabian cities, including Riyadh and Jeddah, screenings of A Jihad for Love were organised in bedrooms and living rooms and people continue to get in touch with me to this day, saying, "I saw your film and it changed my life".
As with anywhere in the Muslim world, it's "don't ask, don't tell". As long as you don't walk down the street in Saudi Arabia with a pride banner you're OK. But you're not OK if you're found out. This is the country that has no human rights record and carries out beheadings in public on a regular basis. It needs to stop.
Your film takes aim at Wahhabi Islam but are you at all worried about whether some people might misinterpret it as a broader critique of Islam?
I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks. Muslims today are in a state of siege: from ourselves, primarily, but also from "the West" that wants to portray Muslims in a particular way. Muslims talk a lot about Islamophobia. I encounter it myself on a daily basis in so many different ways.
I have wondered after seeing this backlash, 'Is it possible for audiences to take an Islamophobic point of view from this film?' And I don't think so. I think the film is like a prayer almost. It's a very pro-Islam film; it's an anti-Saudi film. If you actually see the film and engage with it, you realise this. If you don't see the film, it's a different story, which I can't control.
What practical impact do you want your film to have?
In this film I'm taking on the might of the most secretive, despicable monarchy in the world. I really believe in the power of using my form – documentary storytelling – as an agent for social change. Am I going to be able to create an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia? I'm not sure. Am I going to be able to change the fact that the Americans are in bed with the Saudis? Probably not. But at the same time I feel this film will make people think differently about Saudi Arabia.
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