‘A Sinner in Mecca’: Hot Docs Review

A Sinner in Mecca Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Haram Films

A Sinner in Mecca Still - H 2015

So searchingly personal it can be wearying, but an undeniable act of courage and hope

A New York filmmaker secretly filmed the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site

In A Jihad for Love, filmmaker Parvez Sharma gave voice to Muslims around the world who are struggling to reconcile their religion and their homosexuality, and was condemned as an apostate for it. The Indian-born, New York-based director upped the personal risk-taking when he traveled to Saudi Arabia for his second documentary, defying bans on photography to turn the (cameraphone) lens on himself and fellow pilgrims during the annual hajj. A Sinner in Mecca is a suitably messy mix of the gritty and the surreal, the wrenching and the transcendent, from the midst of the trek to Islam’s holiest site.

As an openly gay man and as a surreptitious chronicler, Sharma brings defiance, humility and anguish to his participation in the pilgrimage, and captures remarkable footage of an event that’s massive — among the world’s largest gatherings — and off-limits to non-Muslims. If the video diary aspects of the doc can feel like selfie overload, the sense of self-dramatizing indulgence is undercut by the very real dangers and emotional turmoil that shape Sharma’s experience.

Having stirred up hate mail and threats even before its Hot Docs premiere, the film is set for broadcast in Europe. Continued travels on the fest circuit are assured, with theatrical distribution likely given the subject’s topicality and the filmmaker’s daring.

Read more  Hot Docs: Cinema Security Heightened for ‘A Sinner in Mecca’ World Premiere

Opening the doc with a horrifying chat-room exchange with a friend in Saudi Arabia, Sharma later uses brief animation sequences to illustrate the historical backdrop of what he considers a religion divided, born of peace but “hijacked by a minority.” A Sunni who grew up with exposure to Sufi mysticism, he repeatedly emphasizes his need to separate the Islam he loves from the official Saudi variety, Wahhabism, which he’s not alone in viewing as intolerant and oppressive.

Armed with an iPhone and two small cameras disguised as phones, Sharma was one of an estimated 2.9 million pilgrims who participated in the 2011 hajj, an undertaking that's required of the faithful at least once in their lives. In images that are sometimes impressionistic and grainy, he provides a strong sense of the rough conditions that make a week feel much longer: sleeplessness, lack of water and trash-strewn grounds are just the beginning. Nearing the Sacred Mosque, Masjid al-Haram, and its central structure, the Kaaba, there are hellish walks through long tunnels and, finally, a dizzying swarm of humanity. Pushed, shoved, bruised, Sharma feels his faith evaporating.

His filmed interactions with other pilgrims are limited; mainly this is an internal journey, and Sharma’s monologue addresses himself and Allah. But he does include audio recordings (with altered voices) of two men who tell harrowing stories. One, a Pakistani, admits that he took part in an honor killing.

Both visceral and abstract, Sharma’s footage in the mosque is striking, whether he’s in the crush of that mass of pilgrims or overlooking the praying multitudes from a higher level of the structure. (Throughout the film, the varied score by Sajid Akbar and M.E. Manning is helpful, never intrusive.)

Sharma is alert to the Western-style merch and signage, including posters celebrating the royal family, that line the road to Mecca, not to mention the mosque-adjacent shopping mall. His snide comments on these commercial intrusions are welcome bursts of humor amid the doleful self-questioning that characterizes much of Sharma’s voiceover narration.

In particular, he’s wracked with guilt over his mother, a poet who never accepted his sexuality, and whose death by cancer he attributes in part to shame. With Husain Akbar handling the cinematography in India, the film includes visits to the town where Sharma once lived with her, and his husband joins him from New York to explore that country. Footage of their wedding day and of their life together contrasts the secret lives that many gay Muslims are forced to lead, if they’re lucky enough not to be imprisoned or, like the man whose death was witnessed by Sharma’s Saudi chat-room friend, beheaded.

That Sharma’s husband is an atheist underscores the aloneness of not just his hajj but his ongoing quest to find his place in Islam. In keeping with the very nature of faith as something that can’t be explained or justified, even as he questions and doubts, he proves thoroughly devoted to tradition, including the unfortunate and gruesome ritual sacrifice of a goat that ends the hajj and is shown onscreen.

Why he believes he’s “a better Muslim” after the hajj is unclear; his epiphany, though obviously the result of a profound ordeal, is finally stated rather than fully communicated. But Sharma’s hope for reform amid extremist currents in Islam couldn’t be more evident.

Production companies: Haram Films in association with Arte and ZDF
Director: Parvez Sharma
Producers: Parvez Sharma, Alison Amron
Executive producer: Andrew Herwitz
Directors of photography: Husain Akbar, Parvez Sharma
Editors: Sajid Akbar, Alison Amron
Composers: Sajid Akbar, M.E. Manning
Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 79 minutes