A Jihad for Love Written and directed by Parvez Sharma Classification: 14A Rating:
Can "Make love not jihad" be the next rallying cry in the Muslim world? Better still, will that freedom to love and be loved extend to gays and lesbians in a religion where, in its stricter interpretations, male homosexuality is punishable by stoning or lashing?
Going by the storylines in A Jihad for Love, director Parvez Sharma's documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims, that prospect may be decades, possibly centuries, away. Yet there are tiny signs of a theological breakthrough and faint sounds of a conversation starting, including the existence of this important but rudderless documentary.
Shot over 51/2 years and in nine languages by a gay Muslim filmmaker, A Jihad for Love offers an insider's look at the lives of men and women attempting to reconcile their faith with their desire. Their stories take us around the world - Canada to Turkey, South Africa to India, Egypt to France - and while the locales may be different, the anguish is ever present, ever the same.
Sometimes the suffering is of the spiritual kind, as in the case of an Arab lesbian in Paris who loves women and Allah equally but believes her sexuality to be a sin.
More distressingly, it's of a brutal physical nature. Stories, pictures and video recordings of one Iranian gay man who got lashed mercilessly once news of his same-sex wedding spread across town, or an Egyptian who was raped in prison while awaiting trial for "debauchery," are unflinchingly told and displayed. We, and by that I assume audiences in affluent liberal democracies, are directed into seeing, feeling and thinking about the pain of gay Muslims.
Sharma repeats the show-and-tell formula to the point where A Jihad for Love screens more like an anthology of short, tortured stories than an organic feature documentary. The archival sense of the word documentary has never felt as resonant as it does here. The camera acts more as a silent witness than a participant in the art of filmmaking. (The doc's visual look hasn't improved much since a rough cut was screened at Toronto's Inside Out film fest a few years ago.)
The director's determination to include as many representative cases as possible within an 81-minute feature leaves him little time to examine any of them in depth. For example, the film begins and ends with one of its more fascinating characters - an out gay Muslim clergyman in South Africa - but he's nowhere to be seen in the centre of the narrative, where he belongs.
Other characters are given equally short shrift. At the request of many participants, faces are blurred and last names withheld. Such an incomplete presentation may enhance the guerrilla-filmmaking aesthetic but, perversely, it also adds to the sense of distortion and marginalization of its subjects.
If there is a nearly complete journey for audiences to follow, it's the story of four gay Iranian men who have fled to Turkey and are awaiting refugee status in the West. Two of them are eventually admitted to Canada, leaving the others in legal limbo.
Sharma allows us a rare glimpse into the mixed emotions of such parting: the joy of leaving and the pain of leaving friends behind. Their stories come to an abrupt end once the two land in Canada. What's their life as Muslims and as gay men in Canada like? Has the West provided the sexual and religious salvation they once dreamed of?
Conclusions and answers are perhaps luxuries that Sharma's film can't afford. Not only is an inner struggle - the true meaning of the term jihad - still raging within his subjects, but relations between the Muslim world and the West have become more polarized in the past decade. There's a sequel right there for any director who wishes to build on Sharma's brave but largely exploratory work.
Parvez Sharma will take part in Q&A sessions after screenings of A Jihad for Love. Friday through Monday, 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. The Royal Theatre, 608 College St., 416-516-4845. Special to The Globe and Mail