SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with Indian Director Parvez Sharma 'A Jihad for Love' Gives Voice to Gay Muslims

The documentary "A Jihad for Love" explores the lives of devout Muslims around the world who are also gay. Director Parvez Sharma speaks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the dangers of filming in some Muslim countries and why the bitterest battles gay people face are on the front lines of religion.

The "Panorama Dokumente" section of the Berlin International Film Festival  focuses on documentaries. This year the section's opening film was "A Jihad for Love," by first-time Indian director Parvez Sharma.

Sharma traveled the world from South Africa to the Middle East and Europe, to talk to devout Muslims who are also gay. His film gives his subjects the chance to speak about their sexuality and their faith. 

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Sharma about the difficulties he faced making the film, the differences between the gay communities in Muslim countries and in the West and why he wants to reclaim the concept of jihad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where did you come up with the idea of telling this story of gay Muslims?

Parvez Sharma: Well, I am gay and Muslim myself. I arrived in the United States in 2000 from India. A year later, Sept. 11 happened and I felt that the political discourse on Islam became extremely problematic. I strongly felt that President Bush and Osama bin Laden were mirror reflections of each other -- they were talking about the same kind of Islam.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of Islam were they portraying?

Sharma: It was an Islam that was not inclusive, that was about violence, that repressed its minorities. Certainly I felt that both of them were not speaking for the majority of Muslims in the world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What did you feel your film could achieve?

Sharma: I felt a film could open a discussion and debate, using essentially what are Islam's most unlikely storytellers, gays and lesbians. I made this film with a very Muslim lens. My intention was to work from within the community and not approach from the outside. And I was really interested in making a film that would with some responsibility engage with Islam critically but also with understanding.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How difficult was it to film in some of the countries, such as Egypt?

Sharma: It was very difficult. I do not have the protection of an American passport, I have an Indian passport. So I always travelled on tourist visas because I knew that I could not seek official permission to shoot this film. Many times I was alone and I could not operate with a camera crew so I did a lot of filming just by myself in private spaces.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were you concerned about the safety of the film's subjects?

Sharma: Yes there was always this question of what was going to happen to the safety of the lives of the people I was leaving behind. I was very concerned about that and took huge precautions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of precautions?

Sharma: My editor in New York went crazy because on every tape, for the first and last 15 minutes, I used to tape touristy footage so that if they were confiscated the main material was embedded in the middle. And I realized early on that I couldn't carry the tapes in my carry-on luggage, that I should check them in, and hope and pray that the bags wouldn't get lost, because I couldn't take the risk of being searched at customs.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you actually find the people in the film?

Sharma: I developed a very good network of underground contacts in Muslim countries, lots of activists, people working on issues of HIV/AIDS and women's groups. Hundreds of e-mails, hundreds of phone calls, meeting people through personal contacts. In each case beginning this rather long journey, of winning trust and developing a close personal relationship with the subject, which I don't think many documentary filmmakers are able to do but the subject matter required it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Almost all the characters you talk to are devout Muslims. Their faith is very important to them.

Sharma: Yes, the subjects of this film are coming out as Muslims first and they are coming out as gay or lesbian, as the secondary thing. I chose to focus on those individuals who were very devout and who wanted to lay that claim as much as any other Muslim.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And did you find it difficult to understand why they wanted to stay part of a religion that rejects them, in the same way that Christianity rejects gay people?

Sharma: As does Judaism. I grew up fairly secular, but Islam was a very deep and important part of my life. But I did not face that indoctrination that religious dogma can bring. For example, I did not attend a madrassa. Of course I have during my life attended those Friday sermons where different sins are listed and homosexuality is one of them. What I found difficult and challenging as a filmmaker was to try to document something as intangible as faith. Because faith is very profound and very personal.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you have to win the subjects' trust before they agreed to be in the film?

Sharma: That was the only way to do it. If I was a white Western filmmaker and a non-Muslim I would not have had that relationship with the subjects, I would not have had the access that I did.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You conducted interviews with subjects in Iraq by telephone and through your contacts there, and you also filmed in Pakistan. Why did you decide not to include those interviews in the film?

Sharma: You have to make narrative choices. You know, there's a lot of politics already in the film. I feel that Iraq deserves its own film, really. The law of jungle prevails in that country, human life has no price, and the complexities of being gay there are immense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that the gay communities in the West are aware of the persecution in these countries?

Sharma: Absolutely not! I went to this big Berlinale party with thousands of young men and as in all gay Western subculture there is this focus on the sexual, on body image. And it's really interesting because it's kind of unreal to show this film at the Berlinale and then to show up somewhere like that and see the difference in context and also awareness of the rest of the world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you feel that?

Sharma: I feel that the greatest period of gay emancipation in the West was during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when people were real activists. After that there has been this tremendous degradation, this lack of knowledge, of what it means to love a same-sex person in any other context.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do gay communities in Muslim countries differ from those in the West?

Sharma:  It's completely different, largely invisible, definitely not based on the kind of political organizing and of the kind of labelling that occurs in the West. There also is this tremendous expectation in society and in the religion to get married and to conform because that is what you are supposed to do. So the largest number of people who might be homosexual are actually in heterosexual marriages.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the Iranian men featured in the film, who is living in exile in Turkey, says he doesn't think things will be better in his lifetime. But when the gay imam in South Africa goes to speak to the community they seemed very open. Is there a sense of things moving forward?

Sharma: Things are happening that are very positive and encouraging. Groups are being formed and people do have safe spaces increasingly. I think for me the end of making this film is the beginning of a movement. I know already that it is having significant impact. But I also completely understand why the Iranian in the film says that it's not going to happen in his lifetime. I don't think these battles are going to be won easily. I have felt for a long time that as gay people, some of our last and most bitter battles are going to be on the front lines of religion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is that why you chose the title "A Jihad for Love"?

Sharma: I'm not looking at jihad as battle -- I'm looking at the greater jihad in Islam, which is the jihad as the struggle with the self. I also thought it was really compelling to take a word that only has one connotation for most -- to take that, reclaim it and put it in the same phrase as love, which is universal. I really think it explains it very well.

Interview conducted by Siobhán Dowling.