Sharma's 'Jihad' makes waves in Toronto


TORONTO -- With 9/11-themed films dominating the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma is grabbing attention with "A Jihad For Love," a documentary six years in the making about Islam and homosexuality.

"We are presenting Islam's most unlikely storytellers," Sharma said Friday of his debut feature about gay and lesbian Muslims battling racial profiling and harassment after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent terror attacks in London and Madrid.

Sharma knows he faces stiff competition in Toronto for media attention, with a variety of high-profile titles, including Paul Haggis' "In The Valley of Elah," Brian DePalma's "Redacted" and Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha," all focusing on events in the Middle East.

But the New York-based filmmaker insists his documentary puts a focus on Islam distinct from the dominant perspectives of the Western media and "violent extremists."

"Hollywood and the mainstream film industry are jumping on the Muslim bandwagon and making films around Islam because of the U.S.. involvement in Iraq. But I feel that a lot of films that are made about Muslims are mediated through Western eyes," Sharma said.

His film aims at shifting the discourse about Islam by "empowering a community that has been silenced, allowing them to tell the story about Islam," he added.

Sharma deliberately chose the word "Jihad" for his film's title, which is most often associated with "holy war."

But the filmmaker insists his documentary illuminates more of an "inner struggle" on the part of Muslim gays and lesbians for recognition of themselves and their faith, rather than the cultural wars and religious battlegrounds often depicted in contemporary media accounts.

Sharma filmed gay Muslims in 12 countries and nine languages, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and France, and always shot footage in secret to escape the attention of local authorities.

His production team includes Sandi DuBowski, director and producer of the 2002 hit documentary "Trembling Before God," an exploration of gays and lesbians and Judaism.

The $2 million film was financed largely by broadcast pre-sales to ZDF-Arte, Channel 4, LOGO and SBS-Australia. Sharma and his team are in Toronto to line up theatrical distribution deals, particularly in North America and Europe.