Parvez Sharma is a filmmaker who made A Jihad for Love, a critically acclaimed documentary about Islam, told from the faith’s “most unlikely storytellers” – Muslims from the GLBTQ community.  The film won Outstanding Documentary at the 2009 GLAAD Media Awards, and Best Documentary at both the Toronto Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Milan Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.  The documentary’s synopsis:

Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma has gone where the silence is strongest, filming with great risk in nations where government permission to make this film was not an option. A Jihad for Love is the first-ever feature-length documentary to explore the complex global intersections of Islam and homosexuality. With unprecedented access and depth, Sharma brings to light the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Muslims from countries like Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, France, India, and South Africa.

On Sharma’s recent visit to Indiana University, the BFC/A’s  Jonathan Jenner sat down to talk with him about the film.

Black Film Center/Archive: You’ve received some really vitriolic condemnations for your film, as well as some really strong commendations for such brave filmmaking.  What reactions did you not anticipate and surprised you the most?

Parvez Sharma: I think what I didn’t expect is that the film would actually save people’s lives and that it continues to do so.  I expected the vitriol – it’s just a Google search away – and the praise is easy to find from critics and others. When I started making the film, it was a bit pre-social media.  Facebook wasn’t around.  But by the time the film came out in 2008, all of that existed, and I realized that there were people in Muslim countries who were seeing the film and would email me or Facebook me and tell me that seeing this thing helped them to know that they’re not alone.  A young man in Riyadh was contemplating suicide, but heard about the film and managed to get a copy; he saw it at a friends place and that saved his life.  For me, that’s pretty amazing.

BFC/A: If you were making A Jihad for Love again, would you do anything differently?

PS: I would do the whole thing differently.  Like any filmmaker I cannot bear to look at it – I see faults and mistakes everywhere.

BFC/A: You’ve talked about A Jihad for Love addressing a battle for the soul of Islam and also as a challenge to the mainstream media’s portrayal of Islam.  You’ve also spoken of wanting to have a ‘Muslim camera.’  Who do you think of as your audience, and how does that affect your filmmaking?

PS: No – it’s very tough when you’re doing something like this over a period of time.  We’re filming in places guerilla style, where government permission will not be given.  And so it’s a jumble to be honest.  It’s not a process of immense creativity.  Any independent filmmaker will tell you that – especially those who’ve dealt with filming on taboo topics.

I never thought of any kind of formula for an audience, consciously. I was very aware of the idea of a Muslim camera, and I wanted to do that.  And yet, reactions from people are as varied as the film itself. I just hope that there’s something about the humanity of the film that is common to all people, and that they can relate to it, and that there is a storytelling involved.  That’s what filmmaking is all about – telling stories.  When you construct a narrative around fact – as opposed to fiction – that can be a little challenging, but that’s what you try and do.  We have heroes and heroines, we have journeys, and we have transformations.  When the audience sees that transformation, hopefully they are transformed as well.

Filmmaker Parvez Sharma
Filmmaker Parvez Sharma

BFC/A: Why filmmaking?  Are you an activist that uses filmmaking or a filmmaker who’s decided to make a film about Islam and homosexuality?

PS: I was a filmmaker first.  I knew I would always want to make films.

I grew up in India with Bollywood.  That was the cinema of my childhood.  As a child I would want to go into the projection booths and see how everything was done.  It’s just what I wanted to do. That’s what I ended up doing.  I’m now working on another project, and it doesn’t get any easier.

BFC/A: Can you tell us about your next project?

It will be a game changer, and a part of it is about me. I promise that – but that’s all I can say really.

BFC/A: Through this project, has your relationship to Islam changed?

PS: It’s changed completely.  This film made me a better Muslim.  I was taken on journeys that were profound and remarkable, and I relearned Islam through their eyes.  It also made me a student of the faith; I had to re-examine many things I’d taken for granted, and that made me a better Muslim.

BFC/A: You’ve said that you cut out stories of ex-Muslims from the film, stories of people who had decided their faith and sexuality were irreconcilable.  How and why did you make that choice?

PS: It’s very hard to cut out anything.  It’s like killing your babies, as they say in film school.  But as I became clearer that it needed to be, then it became it easy.   For me this film is about Islam.  It’s not about homosexuality – it’s about Islam first.  If I was making a film about Islam, then it would need to be this way.

A Screenshot from A Jihad for Love
A Screenshot from A Jihad for Love

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