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Love Jihad: Iranian Filmmaker Documents All
by Roger Rose
When the Department of Homeland Security labeled New York-based Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma an ‘alien with extraordinary abilities,’ they hadn’t even seen his ground-breaking first film, A Jihad for Love. Sharma’s bold doc dares to illuminate the covert relationships among gay and lesbian Muslims, exposing the hidden place where sexuality meets devout faith.
Sharma’s deep devotion to Islam is the common thread that unites him with his interviewees from Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Paris, and beyond. This film played recently at the Frameline32 festival in the Bay Area as (according to Wikipedia) “the world’s first documentary film on the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality.”
Sharma risked his life filming in twelve countries as the film’s writer, director, and principal cinematographer. A jaunty and confident man, Sharma shot the majority of the film himself over six years, carrying the pre-HD war-horse for independent filmmakers, a PD-150 camera. “It’s a good camera for guerrilla-style film making,” he mused. “It doesn’t attract too much attention, and is somewhere in that realm between a professional camera and a tourist camera. I passed [myself] off as a tourist with a slightly better camera.”
While traveling, it was indeed necessary to always play the casual tourist. In Egypt, he told authorities he was there to film the pyramids. “I mixed in enough footage of the pyramids both before and after the interview footage. A worthless stack of mini-DVs were mixed in with the good ones, and they were stored in my check-in baggage rather than on my person. And I never used all this ridiculous footage of tourists running around the desert.”
His informal filmmaking style helped build trust with his contacts, but the trade-off was poor audio, requiring meticulous post-production later. “Obviously, I did not have all the paraphernalia that goes with a regular camera crew,” Sharma recalled, “so the post-work was really intense. Even with my best-faith effort, I struggled a lot in post with the poor quality of sound.”
By luck and coincidence, producer Sandi DuBowski had had his own sound editing done at Skywalker Sound in the past. He introduced Sharma to Glenn Kiser, Skywalker’s General Manager and Vice President, whom he’d known since college. DuBowski had first established a professional connection to Skywalker when they did the sound mix for his film, Trembling Before G-d. This hit film, a natural corollary to Jihad, follows the lives of gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile faith, sexuality, and religious fundamentalism.
In Sharma’s mix, Skywalker used a state-of-the-art digital film console built by AMS Neve, and made use of a lot of outboard gear like a Cedar noise-reduction box and a lot of external plug-ins. The sound editorial had been prepared in New York, and the final sound mix at the Ranch worked on the dialogue, exit sound effects, and music. The biggest technical challenge, Kiser told us, was to clean up the dialogue.
Kiser saw a rough cut of the film early on. “I was really impressed with what Parvez was doing, and I knew it was going to be an important piece of film. It was very much in keeping with [Skywalker’s] philosophy of helping independent films, new voices, and new directors. So, I knew it was something we might want to be involved with.”
Indeed, A Jihad For Love is occupying a very critical space right now in how people understand Islam and talk about it. Showing an international interest in the subject, audiences in 16 countries have showered praise on the film. Says Sharma, “The open discussions that people are having about Islam – not homosexuality – even in a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma, are remarkable to me.”
While the societies Sharma visits are often repressive themselves, the people he portrays are neither stifled nor meek; Sharma exposes the conflicts surrounding their lives. An Iranian youth who finally finds sanctuary in Canada laments, “How can I be free when so many others cannot?”
The film captures the suffering of a gay Egyptian youth, the victim of a police raid on a luxury charter boat, who was lashed and imprisoned for one year. Eventually, to be openly gay, he had to flee to freethinking Paris. A Turkish Sufi lesbian, Maryam, confesses that she wears the hijab because she never wanted to look seductive to men. “People think that a woman who wears a hijab is an extremist, but I now feel free.”
It may come as a surprise that Sharma gained unprecedented access to the lives of those in a society of secrecy, in an endeavor that risked to those who are gay imprisonment, beating, and even death. A few people braved open coverage in the film, but others only spoke under the protection of ‘the digital blur’ that obscured their faces. Sharma said, “Some people changed their minds from when they had first signed the release form allowing their face to be shown. Others reneged during our final edit, causing a tremendous amount of frustration to me.”
Sharma knew he was often working against the camera. Some people didn’t want to talk with anyone about things so personal to them, especially someone filming them. “I wanted the camera nearly invisible,” he reflected, “so that the subject and the filmmaker could build a relationship independent of an intrusive object sharing the same space.”
The filming style that grew out of this theme allowed intense and personal bonds to develop with his storytellers, creating a safe space in which to declare their beliefs. Muhsin Hendricks, a gay South African imam proudly asserts, “I am Muslim, I am an imam, and I am gay. Stick to the Islam, and let Allah be the judge of it at the end of the day.”
Sharma has a dream that his DVD will be sold in the black market on the streets of Teheran, Iran: “I want bootleggers to pick it up in countries where I’m not going to get distribution. I already have friends carrying DVDs into countries like Pakistan and Iran, where private screenings are now happening. In 2008, we’re using new models of film distribution with the Internet.”
He predicts he’ll be looking for an exit clause to stream directly to Iran or Saudi Arabia, until the governments try to block his footage.
“Inshallah,” he said, shaking his head.
Roger Rose is a longtime SF writer with an interest in film, fine art, dance, and theatre.Ü He serves as a Trustee on several non-profit boards, and is an active and effective fundraiser.Üroger@cinesourcemagazine.com
Posted on Aug 07, 2008 - 03:14 PM