Parvez Sharma, A Jihad For Love
After a distinguished career as a print and television journalist, Parvez Sharma has made a notable transition to documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in India, Sharma studied English at the University of Calcutta before gaining three film and journalism related masters degrees at universities in India, Britain and the U.S. He spent the nineties as a newspaper reporter in India and then moved on to working for his country’s premier news network, Star News Channel, using his position to draw attention to human rights and LGBT issues. He also produced and edited the Sundance Grand Jury Award winner Silverlake Life (1993) and acted as assistant director on the award-winning Indian drama Dance of the Wind (1997).
A Jihad for Love, Sharma’s debut as a director, is a highly personal documentary informed by his own status as both Muslim and gay. It is a revelatory examination of the paradox of Muslims who remain devoutly within the religion despite Islam’s persecution of them because of their sexual orientation. Sharma presents a panoramic view of Islamic homosexuals throughout the world such as Muhsin, an openly gay Imam in South African; Mazen, an Egyptian refugee who was incarcerated because of his sexual preference; Ferda and Kiymet, a lesbian couple living in Turkey; and Amir, a young Iranian man forced to flee to Turkey. Shot in 12 countries over six years, Sharma’s film is an intelligent and eloquent exposition of a taboo subject that not only movingly pays tribute to the strength and integrity of the film’s embattled subjects but – despite its provocative title – maintains a reverent rather than critical attitude towards the Islamic religion.
Filmmaker spoke to Sharma about the difficulties involved in making the film, reclaiming the word “jihad,” and designing his own Bollywood film posters as a child.
Filmmaker: Was it a difficult decision to embark on this project?
Sharma: With documentary film, I think sometimes a filmmaker will go and look for a subject and sometimes a subject will find the filmmaker, or really be a part of them. In my case, [the latter] was really true. I am gay and Muslim myself and there was a strong political imperative post- September 11 to come out as a Muslim. (There’s always the act of coming out as gay, but I was done with that when I was 17.) I suddenly felt very conscious of my Muslim-ness, my Islam, post-September 11. I was teaching at that time at the American University in Washington, and it was a very interesting time because you were suddenly surrounded in the media by a completely new discourse about Islam that was being controlled primarily by either George Bush or Osama Bin Laden. I think it was and continues to be a problematic discourse because it does not allow for any other discussion of Islam, really, so you’re just constantly fed on that diet of stereotypes of the world. So the political objective as an activist – and I do feel I have an activist’s soul – was to inject into this climate something that was remarkably different, something that was made by a Muslim lens, and something that was taking responsibility for talking about what had been surrounded by a lot of silence.
Filmmaker: In the media’s discussion of Islam, so much seems to be propaganda but this film seems to be an exploration of a subject, rather than a documentary with a clear agenda.
Sharma: I did have an agenda, I had a political imperative to inject some responsible discourse into a discussion [that] does not get very far away from Al Qaeda or women wearing a hijab – that’s all you see of Muslim women, for example – and definitely does not give space to progressive voices in the community, which I think constitute the majority of Muslim voices in the world. So that impetus was there and I think many documentary filmmakers have that agenda. I believe in film as a tool for social change and engagement.
Filmmaker: The film is extremely intimate as well as political in a broader sense.
Sharma: It ended up in many ways becoming a very personal journey because any documentary filmmaker who says they’re not close to their subjects is lying. This act of bringing a camera into someone’s life is a very deliberate act and involves a process of very complex negotiations, within yourself and with the individual you are filming. It needs that establishing of a very strong personal bond, so much so that as a filmmaker you’re really working hard to deny the existence of the camera in the room. If I was a blonde, blue-eyed American boy and not who I am, I do not think I would have had this access into these lives or gotten them to be comfortable enough to talk to me.
Filmmaker: How did you find the people in the film?
Sharma: With each person, it was a different story. One of the things I always say is that my “gaydar” helped, but it was through emails, through underground networks of contacts in Muslim countries, hundreds of phonecalls. In many cases, I just went to a country, like Bangladesh or Egypt, and just spent a few weeks there and established contacts with people who were working there to get access to people who would talk to me. This involved many trips over years, going back again and again, for the initial meetings with people and then winning that critical trust. I think being Muslim, being of Indian origin, and being brown all helped, because I was not approaching a very personal subject from an outsider’s point of view, I was essentially doing it from the inside. The same Islam that makes me so visible when I’m crossing the border into America gave me a degree of invisibility in Muslim countries, where I could blend in with the other people.
Filmmaker: How did you build the necessary trust for your subjects to agree to be filmed?
Sharma: I think the hardest thing was to win the trust of each one of these subjects in the film. I think I had to become their shoulder to cry on, I had to learn how to become a friend to each one of them. Many times, I had to forget my personal agenda to make the film and spend a lot of time over months and years just holding people and being there for them. With Mazen, the Egyptian refugee in the film, I met him in 2003. He completely refused to be in this film but we became really close friends – I would go to Paris even sometimes four times a year to spend time with him, to talk to him. He let me do some interviews in silhouette and in the film you see him go from darkness into light. It was only a year ago that he actually agreed to finally show his face, but this was after years of us being really close. I was dealing with a person who’d been through immense trauma: he’d been imprisoned, he’d been tortured, he’d been raped for one year. At a very young age, not many people have had that intensity of experience – and he was a refugee living penniless in a foreign country. So many nights, he would sleep right next to me, crying all night long, and I just had to be there for him. That’s the intensity of the involvement I’m talking about. I’m not sure if every film needs that level of involvement from the documentary filmmaker, but when you’re dealing with pain, when you’re dealing with people coming out of trauma, when you’re asking people “Who do you pray to and who do you sleep with?”, you just have to become that rock and a part of someone’s life. And it happened in every case.
Filmmaker: A current trend in documentaries is to have the filmmaker at the center of the film, ala Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Was that something you ever considered?
Sharma: The most intense discussions about keeping me in the film or not were with my editor, which were private but very intense. At some point with her, I realized I did not need to be in the film. To me, it was pretty clear: I wanted the subjects of the film to have agency, and I thought my experience of growing up was not as religious as most Muslims was. I grew up in a very secular environment; Islam was very much part of who I am and my life, but my parents did not send me to a madrasah, they sent me to Christian convent called St. Mary’s. I’m there in every frame, every question that was asked, in every intimate interaction that the subjects have, but I don’t think I needed to speak or be seen in it.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a little about the title because I think people who haven’t seen the film probably don’t realize the meaning of “jihad” is “struggle to achieve” and not “holy war.”
Sharma: It’s a very polarizing title, it’s a very deliberate act. Mazen was the one who first suggested the title, he said “Call it Love Jihad.” “Jihad” is such a contentious word. The sales agents, at one point, wanted to back out of the project when I said it was going to be called A Jihad for Love.
Filmmaker: It had a different title before, didn’t it?
Sharma: It used to be called In the Name of Allah, but the more I travelled in Muslim countries the more I realized that that title would be seen as a provocation by many Muslims. People thought it was good and challenging but too problematic [because] the Danish cartoons and all sorts of stuff was happening. So then we came up with A Jihad for Love, but then there was the battle fought within my own team [about the title] and I had my back to the wall, with every single person on the team disagreeing with me. But those fears that no distributor would pick up a film called A Jihad for Love in post-September 11 America disappeared over time. I am one of very few people in the Muslim world saying that “Jihad” needs to be taken back, that Al Qaeda doesn’t control that and they’ve got it all wrong. How do you make “jihad” fashionable and take it away from Osama and his gang? I’ve been thinking of great marketing ideas: the coolest new hipster t-shirt should be “Love Jihadi.”
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Sharma: When I first entered Saudi Arabia, I was at Jeddah Airport. It was the first time I was there, and it was a very fearful moment, a very emotional moment, a very cinematic moment. It’s a huge airport and you see the entire Muslim universe in this huge hall. You have these gates all going to different countries – Turkey, Indonesia, Arab, African and South Asian countries – and you just have this mass of humanity. Shi’ia, Sunni, old people in wheelchairs, entire families sitting on the floor just waiting to get on those flights to Mecca. It was really profound and the first time in my life I’ve seen that expanse of being surrounded completely by Muslims from every corner of the globe.
Filmmaker: What was your cinematic epiphany?
Sharma: Bollywood cinema is in my blood and I think my cinematic epiphanies have to do with that cinema. As a young kid,I knew all the lyrics to all the songs. There was this film called Sholay that came out in 1979, a remarkable film, a Bollywood film that established a whole new genre. I’ve seen that film about 46 times. So that’s been my sensibility. As a young kid, my mother used to subscribe to these Bollywood magazines with the film stars. There’s one called Stardust that was quite popular and I used to cut out the pictures of all the stars and design my own movie posters and it would say “A Film By Parvez Sharma.” At a very young age, I did want to make films and I think I wanted to make Bollywood films, so I certainly didn’t set out to be a documentary filmmaker. I think my next film is definitely going to be Jihad, the Musical, a Bollywood musical. All my friends at college have ended up in Bollywood and they’re doing really well making lots of money, creating a very different cinema that is still the musical genre.
Filmmaker: Finally, What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Sharma: Patience, I think. I really think you have to be patient and you have to be really strong. It’s not easy to get a film funded, it’s certainly not easy to make a film. And don’t go to film school – it’s a waste of time, money and resources and it’s all crap. I think film school is making a film, and you need that patience and you need that strength because a lot is going to come at you.