More views of – or before – Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
27 June (29 June, Post-script added)
This remains the most perplexing film from Sheffield Documentary Festival, with its themes – almost at poles away from each other (please see below) – having tumbled around in one’s head, in search of supremacy, throughout the screening. Although, in fact, none ultimately found any, and one’s hopes for a considered response were then jostled by a good deal of immoderately detailed criticism, and even hostility, in the Q&A* (so what one first wrote – please see below – was not an ideal appreciation) : it was painful that there was the palpable affront to, and taken by, director Parvez Sharma (@parvezsharma) at being asked why he had made A Sinner in Mecca, and what it was about (as he pointed out, to these people who had just watched his film, there was insult in so doing).
These themes in the film [its official web-site is http://asinnerinmecca.com], which refuse to stay together and be quiet, are fairly simply stated (though it is not intended to be reductively done) :
(1) The desire to complete a Hajj to Mecca and show that one is a good Muslim
(2) How the traditional elements of a Hajj (specifically the environment and manner in which they are carried out) have been influenced or even changed by the Islamic tradition to which the ruling Saudi royal family adheres (the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam)
(3) A prohibition on filming at Mecca and the other religious sites (whereas we have footage, and much contemporary audio, of everything that Sharma does to complete his Hajj)
(4) Recent executions, by beheading, of men just for being gay
It is partly in the interaction of themes (1) and (2) that tension arises within the viewer : Sharma is clearly sincere in wanting to carry out the traditional steps of a Hajj, and seek acceptance from God for his pilgrimage, but he in no way refrains from doing so and at the same time pointing out how a shopping-mall, for example, complete with a branch of Starbucks, is a matter of a few hundred metres from the most sacred Islamic site, The Kaaba (or Ka’aba), in the mosque Al-Masjid al-Haram [the link is to the Wikipedia® web-page]. It feels like a remarkable doublethink on Sharma’s part, trying to engage with the significance of all these ritual acts (and their meaning to him), but at the same time as criticizing what the ruling family has done to holy sites (or, later in the film, seems to have allowed to happen to them).
One is reminded that, in the Christian tradition, all four Gospels have accounts of Jesus driving the money-lenders out of the Temple (e.g. Matthew 21 : 12–17, 23–27), and Islam has equivalent passages of zeal for God’s house :
At the culmination of his mission, in 629 CE, Muhammad conquered Makkah with a Muslim army. His first action was to cleanse the Kaaba of idols and images.
Narrated Abdullah: When the Prophet entered Mecca on the day of the Conquest, there were 360 idols around the Ka'bah. The Prophet started striking them with a stick he had in his hand and was saying, "Truth has come and Falsehood has Vanished.. (Qur'an 17:81)"
—Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 59, Hadith 583
Since, from what Sharma says in the film, we do not know whether theme (3) is a religious prohibition (or an administrative one), and in the light of a harsh state religious penalty from theme (4), one might imagine – and hence be anxious – that he risked execution to take his footage (please see below). Here lies what appears to be a further conflict : even if a person decides for himself, irrespective of such a penalty, that a good Muslim can be gay (or lesbian), why would he (or she) flout a prohibition not to film in sacred places ? As with the pull between themes (1) and (2), so, in that between (1) and (3), one spends time not quite fathoming why Sharma has chosen to film his Hajj – and that gnaws at one, as one watches the film :
Is he – if a real distinction is being made here – filming it as proof for himself that he did it, or to show us ? (Although, if he is showing it to us, we may not (easily) understand what this series of acts means to him spiritually, especially the final one, which is alarming.) If he had not filmed, of course, there would not be a documentary (not in this way, at any rate), but does the film, as we watch, leave us with the uncertainty how he can be both sincerely pious and simultaneously documenting his experience, if (and we do not know) filming is against a religious ordinance ? Or do we maybe need to throw ourselves into a world such as that of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales (or of Gide’s Les caves du Vatican), and not try to separate religious experience from humanity from human nature ? (With the example of Jesus and Muhammad, after all, we see how they concentrate on what is holy about the Temple / the Ka'bah, and dismiss the unworthy human additions : does the pilgrim, too, undertake certain steps to reduce his or her unworthiness ?)
Quite often (maybe through not being a Muslim ?), one wonders whether Sharma must be ‘going through the motions’ in his Hajj (or, in part, feel that he is ?), since he is commentating so pointedly on what has become of its elements in modern Saudi Arabia – that, though, does not quite identify our question, but is an attempt at understanding what it must be like to be in locations that have now been ‘reinterpreted’ so radically (not his word, but a euphemistic analogy). For example, Sharma tells us of the history that gives symbolic significance to the activity of running between two mountains (and we are shown a moment of animation) : they are mountains, now that the space has been enclosed, that we cannot see, but only what resemble (again, not his word) ‘soulless’ modern corridors.
Using the word ‘soulless’ is not, of course, at all meant to denigrate the inherently sacred nature of this spot (for Sharma himself indicates that he does not relish what has been done here). It is an attempt to say what it looks like, as a space that one would think lacked significance, and even much humanity – as when we castigate planners for giving us an unwelcoming underpass, or a corridor that we have to tramp down to get to platforms on an Underground line. Sharma, however, must somehow keep everything holy in his soul and heart, despite the fact that this and other settings for elements of the Hajj have been changed so much that we wonder how the religious acts themselves can remain. (Likewise, he shows us what disgusts him in traffic-jams on a coach that last for hours, and in having to make devotions in a city full of discarded rubbish that no one deals with.)
Somehow (or mentally somewhere : as if in a minimal area of overlap between themes (1), (2) and (4), in a Venn diagram ?), despite being critical that Saudi cemeteries / monuments have been destroyed (because the Wahhabi faith of the royal family discredits praying to idols), Sharma sees himself as capable of making a Hajj that is acceptable to his God – yet, in so doing, rejecting / critiquing what has now been done to the religious centres, including the fact that his sexual orientation stands condemned and that filming is banned (theme (3)). This seeming confusion of attitudes is why, early on and for the round-up portal-page for Doc/Fest coverage, this comment was made :
Despite director / cinematographer Parvez Sharma’s hope that his film was not self indulgent, and the insights that he wished to share – through going on a Hajj – about Mecca and other holy sites, and the ruling Saudi dynasty and its attitude to the past, how he pursued, and attained, the object of his quest seemed to stay very personal to him and his experience
The more reflective step, before starting to analyse the film’s themes (as attempted above), was to consider the case of Arthur Koestler, who (in the summative Bricks to Babel, which probably excerpts an earlier work for this material) reported his experience of being so far ‘inside’ the ideologies of both first Communism and then Christianity that objections to them could be heard, but never penetrate to or undermine belief : the internal logic of each belief-system had a self-sustaining answer for everything that challenged it. Here, one needs to come to a realization that none of the negative associations involved in what we see of Saudi – such as the Wahhabi accretions / rulings / modernizations – affect Sharma’s core relationship to his faith, and, more importantly, what he ends up telling us that he has nevertheless taken from the Hajj : He feels accepted by his God, and he is vindicated as a Muslim who is also gay.
However, for us as viewers, that part of what happens in the film is utterly internal to him, with (especially, again, if we are non-Muslims) only his words as mediation between his experience and us – not least if we do not relate to the notion of, or what is needful in, a blood sacrifice [in the tradition of Ibrahim / Abraham]. Moreover, the path that Sharma is shown having chosen, to travel to Saudi (despite being gay), and intending to film, is a very narrow one : on account of a sequence at the opening of A Sinner in Mecca, which, quite from choice, seemed to front-end what followed, but never to be returned to**, one was left, as one watched (despite the fact that, flesh and blood, the film-maker had introduced his film), more and more anxious at the risk that he had run to make it (and whether there was still a possibility of reprisal, against him or those who screened his film ? – on which, please see the Post-script).
In the event, perhaps it could have helped one focus on other aspects of the film, if one had known beforehand what one came to learn in the Q&A : one device that Sharma had been using to film had actually been confiscated, and what he had filmed was deleted (so he had had to replicate it later on), but nothing worse had happened***. Even so, it may be that the nature of the themes that Sharma is handling here (as teased out above) just inevitably mean that it feels in conflict with itself, and that we are likely to stay external to his understanding of himself in relation to Islam and his God ?
Synergistically with working on the above review, and en route to and from The Stables for a folk gig last week, Richard Thompson’s album The Old Kit Bag was being replayed.
One had forgotten that, in part two (The Pilgrims Fancy, titling tracks 7 to 12), was a song called ‘Outside of the Inside’. It begins provocatively with God never listened to Charlie Parker / Charlie Parker lived in vain, and calls his jazz ‘monkey music’, and him ‘Blasphemer, womaniser’ – the first of several take-downs of Western figures such Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Van Gogh and Botticelli.
Towards the end, we have these rather chilling lines :
I’m familiar with the cover
I don’t need to read the book
I police the word of action
Inside’s where I never look
The review of the film that appeared in The Guardian (by Safa Samiezade’-Yazd), now read, tells us : Parvez, who is gay and Muslim, has had death threats for making the film, leading to increased security at the festival screenings. (In retrospect, then, the search of our bags in the way into the screening at Doc/Fest had been nothing to do with trying to restrict pirating…)
As the review also has a short interview, at the end, with the reviewer as a sympathetic questioner, it is well worth a read to give the film’s director a chance to talk about A Sinner in Mecca, without (as we had twice in the Doc/Fest Q&A) a point-by-point insistence on the ways in which he had misrepresented Islam and its tenets, for example :
This is a film about the change that needs to happen within Islam. It’s a direct challenge that has never been mounted to the Saudi monarchy. It’s a call to action to all Muslims to take back singular authority over their faith.
Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews
* Except that one did not wish to get caught up in the emotion behind these harsh comments, and see a film-maker who has brought a film be attacked, was it possible that the fact that, in themselves, they were being made almost provided sufficient justification for having made A Sinner in Mecca ?
** A little stagily, though, in fact, the staginess proved to help convey the sense of fear and desperation of the director’s correspondent, and thereby to leave one, later, in trepidation for his safety.
*** Even so, the fact that he had made A Jihad for Love (2007) connected him, as a film-maker, with being gay, so he had clearly heightened the risk of being identified, when in Saudi Arabia, by filming. (And, as was put to him in the Q&A, his film had been open about his marriage to his gay partner in New York City at the start of film, but, in some parts of the States, legislation against same-sex marriage was being passed, so the negative attitudes were close to home.)
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)