In A Sinner in Mecca, director Parvez Sharma documents his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – knowing that, as an openly gay man, he could be executed just for setting foot in Saudi Arabia. We sat down with Sharma at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this month to discuss what inspired him to turn the camera on himself.
The Hajj is something every Muslim is encouraged to do at least once in their lifetime. What was the tipping point for you, where you thought ‘This is the year that I make the pilgrimage to Mecca’?
I had spent the early months of 2011 doing a lot of reporting on the Arab Spring from Egypt, and then also Bin Laden was found and killed. Being the masochist that I am I thought this would be the perfect time to go, and also to see if the Arab Spring would arrive in Saudi Arabia or not. I think it will happen, I’m optimistic about that, but only if Muslims like me are allowed to speak out, if our voices are heard. Because in the media, the voices that are heard are from groups like ISIS, so they become the spokesperson for Islam, they become the lens through which the rest of the world looks at Muslims, and that’s wrong.
In a sense everyone is a filmmaker now, because everyone is carrying a camera in their back pocket. Do you see this film as a call to arms for other aspiring Muslim filmmakers?
Absolutely. I think it is a call to arms, and I think that filmmaking, and documentary especially, is a very powerful and potent tool of social change. What I’m trying to do with this film is speak out against the Saudi monarchy, against Saudi Arabia, but more importantly I’m trying to come out – not as a gay man, but as a Muslim. We’ve only been public with this film for a short while but I’m getting death threats practically every day… now they all sound the same, it’s just stupid stuff.
You’re a Sunni Muslim, yet you took the pilgrimage with a group of Shia Muslims. Did you find it difficult to join them?
They welcomed me openly – I remember the group leader saying “We, the Shia, welcome you.” – but if it was the other way around, a Shia in a Sunni group, that would never happen. What was more difficult was being afraid that someone within the group would find out who I was, that I was a filmmaker. That was a source of worry throughout the pilgrimage. They asked me several times, “Why do you film all the time?”, and I’d say “It’s the most important journey of my life, I want to remember it,” which was actually true.
What’s striking is that you quite often captured other pilgrims on their phones – do you think that the Saudi government realises there is a limit to how much they can monitor and control?
Yes, but they still try to control as much as they possibly can, and social media in Saudi Arabia is monitored extensively, it’s carefully watched. But they realise that it’s the 21st century, and everyone is going to have a smartphone. People take Hajj selfies all the time; the only difference with me is that I’m standing in a particular spot for a longer time, and taking shots from different angles. That’s how I would get into trouble. A selfie takes a couple of seconds and you’re done, but someone doing what I was doing attracts more attention.
So how did you minimise the attention you drew to yourself?
I would never carry all three devices [an iPhone and two cameras disguised as flip phones] at the same time, and I would try to be as discreet as possible – it sounds silly, because you can’t be discreet in a place like that. One of the things I learned very quickly, after they deleted my footage early on, was that I should always look around for the religious police [the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice]. I figured out what they look like and what they wear, and there’s a particular look of menace to them. They walk around with sticks and hit you.
There’s a real contrast in the film between the implementation of strict Wahhabism [a branch of Islam dating from the 17th century] on the one hand and the encroaching of modernity on the other – there’s a Starbucks less than 1,000 feet from the Kaaba in Mecca. Do you believe that the two are becoming intertwined?
It’s not modernity, it’s a destruction of Islamic history. It looks modern on the surface, but what it is is a deliberate, conscious effort on the part of the Saudis to remove the history of Islam. The mermaid in the Starbucks logo is a depiction of a woman, so obviously they have to edit the logo. It’s deliberate, it’s planned, it’s not something that’s happening by accident. Seven-star hotels are deliberately built on places where Islam’s history has stood from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They don’t care about that. The aim of their project is to make Mecca unrecognisable. I don’t think many pilgrims question it, but you have to remember that the majority of pilgrims are coming from poor countries, and they’re drawn to the ‘dazzle factor’ of Mecca. Not everyone approaches the Hajj with the same kind of critique that I already had in my head.
What was it like to leave Mecca, and then to go back home to New York? Where do you go from here?
It was very difficult – pilgrims leave Mecca, but Mecca never leaves them. I was haunted by the Kaaba, and it still haunts me now. What’s really sad for me as a Muslim is knowing that, now the film has been released, I will never be allowed back in. Now I go on to sell the film, and I’m writing a book about my pilgrimage which should come out next year. A book allows me to do a lot of things that I couldn’t do in the film, to tackle larger concepts which are hard to deal with. Not to say that the film doesn’t have words – it has plenty – but it’s a different principle.
An interview with Parvez Sharma was kindly provided by Sheffield Doc/Fest and Haram Films. For our review of A Sinner in Mecca, click here.