Hot Docs: Cinema Security Heightened for 'A Sinner in Mecca' World Premiere

A Sinner in Mecca - H 2015

A Sinner in Mecca - H 2015

Fest organizers have arranged a personal security detail for gay Muslim director Parvez Sharma as his Hajj pilgrimage doc debuts in Toronto amid an Islamist hate mail campaign.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival has implemented strict security measures for next week's world premiere of U.S. gay Muslim director Parvez Sharma's latest film, A Sinner in Mecca.

"Hot Docs strives to ensure that all guests feel safe and secure while attending the festival, and out of an abundance of caution we felt this measure was appropriate," Hot Docs communications director Jonathan Da Silva told The Hollywood Reporter about hiring personal security for Sharma.

The follow-up to A Jihad For Love, a film about LGBT Muslims that bowed at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, has Sharma making a pilgrimage to Mecca as an openly gay and devout Muslim. That spiritual journey put the director in harm's way as he operated video cameras in Saudi Arabia, which is against the law.

And being gay is also punishable by imprisonment, a public whipping and even beheading if uncovered by the Mutaween, Saudi Arabia's Islamist religious police. "I was very often at the wrong end of their batons. I was chased and stopped. And images of those encounters was taken away from me. The footage that survives is what made up my film," Sharma said in an interview ahead of A Sinner in Mecca debuting at the Scotiabank Theater in downtown Toronto on April 29.

Beyond his security threatened in Saudi Arabia, Sharma said he's faced in recent weeks a flood of Islamist hate mail over A Sinner in Mecca on social media and on the film's website. "I'm being accused of blasphemy and been told that in a land where Sharia is the law I would be killed," he said of a reaction to a documentary no one has seen publicly.

Sharma has also received direct personal threats, which he feels could be carried out as A Sinner in Mecca starts its festival circuit journey. So he will have security at his side during his entire Hot Docs stay.

"I'm hopeful that it's Toronto after all, and not Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and I hope that better sense will prevail and nothing will happen. Still, I'm so grateful they (Hot Docs) has provided a security detail for me," Sharma said. He added any commercial release for A Sinner in Mecca will come as Islam is at war with itself.

"I've always said that our last and most bitter battles will be fought on the front lines of religion. And that's what happening today. Islam is in crisis," Sharma said. He pointed to Saudi Arabia's own brand of Islam, Wahhabism, as a wellspring of Muslim extremism.

"The Saudi Arabian version of Islam has been exported around the world. That's at the root of what ISIS says Islam is. It's dangerous and it's led to increased conservatism in Muslim communities, including in the U.S.," Sharma said.

The Hot Docs festival is set to run in Toronto until May 3.