TORONTO (Reuters) – It took gay Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma six years to make “Jihad for Love,” a documentary film about gay men and women trying to live Muslim lives in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and South Africa.
Now he says his challenge will be to make sure the movie reaches Muslim communities, even in countries where being homosexual remains a crime that could be punishable by death.
“I aim to take this film into Muslim countries as a Muslim,” Sharma told Reuters in an interview, noting that the downloading possibilities of the Internet make it far easier to distribute movies than in the past.
“I am going to make sure that this film gets to every Muslim that needs to see it…and if this means I am going to have to smuggle the tapes through my underground contacts in Muslim countries and make sure that people everywhere are able to have screenings for this film, then that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this week, focuses on a few dozen men and women who seek to reconcile their sexuality with life as Muslims. The title defines jihad as personal struggle, rather than as holy war.
It’s a first movie for Sharma, who now lives in New York with his partner, an American banker, and who grumbles that he can’t marry in the United States and that he doesn’t qualify for a spouse’s green card because his partner is a man.
“Islam is a way of life. It’s my life,” he said. “I think that everything in my own life being a gay Muslim, especially living in a post September 11 world, moved me toward making this film. This film found me.”
One of those shown in the movie is South African Muhsin Hendricks, a gay Imam who “came out” to a storm of protest and angry phone-ins to local radio stations, including callers calling for his death.
In the film, he argues that censure of homosexuals from Islamic texts is a censure of forced male rape, rather than of loving relations between two men, and he’s had discussion sessions with a local Islamic welfare council.
Speaking in Toronto, he acknowledged it is easier for gays to live in South Africa than in many other countries, although acceptance among Muslims remains slow.
“My community is still very conservative, it’s still difficult to work within the community, but it’s easier that the constitution is protecting gay rights,” he said.
The story is different in Egypt, where another participant in the film, Mazen, was one of those arrested in a 2001 raid on a gay club in Cairo. He was imprisoned for two years before winning asylum in France.
Mazen, whose mother still doesn’t know he has taken part “Jihad for Love,” said he had initially asked director Sharma not to show his face in the movie, but he changed his mind mid-way through the movie making.
“I decided because I wanted to say a message,” he said.