Sexuality, religion, barbarity and spirituality all come under discussion in A Sinner in Mecca – Parvez Sharma’s follow up to his début A Jihad for Love. Being both a homosexual man and devout Muslim, Sharma explores the supposed contradictions of his sexuality in the face of his religion. An extension of his first feature, A Sinner in Mecca is an ambitious but ultimately confused study of modern day Islam and sexuality. Already declared an infidel by the Saudi government, Sharma makes the dangerous journey to Saudi Arabia in order to fulfil his pilgrimage to Mecca. Illegally and controversially filming his physical and spiritual journey on a camera phone, Sharma comments on the hypocrisy and flaws with the contemporary pilgrimage whilst also documenting his own pilgrimage and experience. A Sinner in Mecca premièred in the UK at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, with the director present. Sharma introduced the film and then partook in a question and answer session following the screening. There is no denying the integrity and conviction with which A Sinner in Mecca was made – it’s just a shame the film lacks any enlightenment or conclusive messages. The film opens with a disturbing account of how gay people are being executed in Saudi Arabia; by the government, for their sexuality. Cutting to New York, we meet our director on his wedding day – a day of open celebration; a stark contradiction to the scenes of violent prejudice that the film opens with. Sharma’s voice-over narration then takes us on a journey into his personal and moral battle with the clash he finds between his religion and sexual orientation, speaking of his lifelong torment over Islam’s intolerance of his way of life. What begins as a study of Islam and sexuality loses its way the moment Sharma finds himself on his way to the sacred city.
As Sharma makes his way through the different stages of the pilgrimage you can’t help but feel that his camera distracts from the spiritual experience he’s undertaking. Recording the pilgrimage seemed to me to taint its sacredness and, although it was fascinating to see Mecca and the different religious processes in such a close up and intimate way, I felt Sharma was exploiting and tarnishing this private place and time, designed to be seen and experienced only by Muslim people first hand. Sharma is particularly keen to highlight the troubling amounts of litter left behind by pilgrims and is also critical of the consumerist habits that have crept into the Holy City. One amusing scene shows a huge shopping mall. Sharma’s disapproval is obvious as he points out that only several hundred feet from those circling the Kaaba are many others sipping on their Starbucks. The film’s most testing scene shows Sharma slaughtering a goat – a conclusive and crucial part of the pilgrimage. With his journey complete, Sharma reflects on what he has learnt about his religion and himself. His answers, although undoubtedly sincere, come across to an audience as disappointingly anti-climactic. Long gone are the discussions of Saudi Arabia and the barbaric prejudice that still face many homosexuals across the world. Some of Sharma’s footage succeeds in capturing the enormity of the pilgrimage and creates a powerful sense of one’s own insignificance but A Sinner in Mecca tries to explore too much too quickly and what we’re left with is an inconclusive, self-indulgent, albeit brave, documentary about self-acceptance. My inner struggle with the film-maker’s decision to film Mecca, and this action’s questionable ethics, distracted me from the film’s attempts to enlighten. For Sharma, as his journey ends, he is found. Sadly, his audience are left very much lost.
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