Monday, 20 April 2015

HOT DOCS 2015: A SINNER IN MECCA Review By Greg Klymkiw ****

A Sinner in Mecca (2015)
Dir. Parvez Sharma

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I think filmmaker Parvez Sharma (A Jihad for Love) wins the grand prize, hands-down, for making one of the bravest films of this or any other year. Sharma is a deeply devout Muslim and required, as all able-bodied Muslims are, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (The Hajj) in Saudi Arabia at least once in his life.

The time for him is now. He needs to affirm his faith by making this Holy journey, but he also needs to address a deeply personal conundrum of conscience. Has he been a good Muslim? Is he a good Muslim? Can he continue to be a good Muslim?

Sharma, you see, is gay.

Virtually all organized religions have a problem with homosexuality, though some more than others. It's probably safe to say that Islam falls into the more category. Uh, like, big-time more. Not only will Sharma embark upon this deeply spiritual odyssey, but it will be extremely dangerous to do so. It might well rival that of Homer's Odysseus, only in this case the Cyclops Polyphemus, the man-eating Laestrygonians and six-headed Scylla will seem tame in comparison to the deeply fundamentalist members of Sharma's faith.

He might not come back at all.

Here's the deal on the "not coming back at all" part of the equation.

First and foremost:


Sharma is GAY!

In Saudia Arabia this is a crime and the penalties include corporal AND capital punishment.

Secondly, he is going to film the experience.

Uh, it's utterly, absolutely, completely FORBIDDEN to shoot anywhere in the Holy city of Makkah (Mecca).

This is simple math here, folks.

The results of the equation seem so daunting and yet, one gets the sense from the film that Sharma is even more convinced that this is something he must do.

The bulk of the film is indeed a profoundly moving and alternately, terrifying experience. It's also imbued with the kind of Cecil B. DeMille-like sweep, only with the "real thing" on view - not thousands of extras, nor grand, spectacular make-believe sets, but real people and real locations. Sharma takes us deep into Masjid al-Haramthe an 88-acre mosque which contains the Kaaba, a massive cube-like structure said to have been built over 2000 years before Christ by Ibrahim and Ismael.

We witness, from afar, and then right in the midst of it, tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of the faithful as they circle the Kaaba, protected by armed guards, in order to get close enough to touch it for absolution. This is surely some of the most astounding footage you'll ever see. As far as I can tell, no film has ever been close enough to the Kaaba to photograph it in all its glory. It's also plenty suspenseful since at anytime, Sharma risks being beaten, arrested and/or killed for photographing the proceedings and/or being gay, but also, because the mass of constantly moving human flesh is, in and of itself, extremely dangerous. At one point, we're even privy to what appears to be a violent stampede.

Sharma takes us, step-by-step through every single challenge of the pilgrimage: the running of the Saee (to pay homage to Hajjar, the mother of Ismail), a whole day under the blistering sun upon the plains of Arafat (to pray for forgiveness), an entire night on the plain of Muzdalifah (to collect stones) and eventually to enter the Jamrat in order to hurl stones at the massive columns representing Satan.

The film also presents a sense of outrage and even ironic humour as we bear witness to the grotesque accoutrements imposed upon this holy site by the idiot ruling families of Saudi like toilets replacing the original home of Muhammad and his first wife, the endless skyscrapers (including a garish clock tower) and - I KID YOU NOT - the MALL OF MECCA. Yes, a massive shopping mall; perhaps the largest in the world.

What's truly astonishing about Sharma's film is not just this amazing footage, but that his journey is so damn moving and inspirational. He obviously lived to tell the tale, for which we all must be grateful for, but for some of us, religious or not, Muslim or not, his trip to Mecca has the power to touch us well beyond the bravery and aesthetic of the film, but affect an audience on a deeply spiritual level.

This is what makes cinema so special. We can live vicariously through Sharma's experience, but in so doing we are also susceptible to being imbued (albeit mediated) with the holiness of Allah, or God, or whatever higher power we acknowledge.

Note: Sharma and his film have already been denounced and he has received death threats. This has forced the Hot Docs festival to provide Sharma with bodyguards. It's ludicrous. I can think, especially in the current climate of intolerance towards Muslim people, of no better way to represent Islam to all of us.


A Sinner in Mecca has its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2015. For info click HERE