Searching: 'A Jihad for Love' director Parvez Sharma came away from six years of filming gay Muslims with his own Muslim identity strengthened. (Photo courtesy First Run Features)

Parvez Sharma and 'A Jihad for Love'

Judy Stone August 14, 2008

Parvez Sharma might never have made his profoundly moving A Jihad for Love if he had not felt guilty about causing unhappiness to his dying mother when he told her he was homosexual.

"A lot of the religious dogma she had never really used in her entire life became part of her argument against my homosexuality," the Indian director said when he was in San Francisco to present his documentary at the Frameline film festival this past June. The film opens in the Bay Area August 22.

Growing up in the comparatively small town of Saharanpur, he was the product of a rare mixed marriage. His Hindu father worked for a cigarette manufacturing company and his Muslim mother, a homemaker, was the dominant force in his life. "I grew up fairly secular," he noted. "Indians pride themselves on secular traditions of being a vibrant democracy. That’s how the country was founded in 1947. Those are the values my parents brought me up with."

Nevertheless, after his mother’s death, he formally converted to Islam. "I felt in some way that I was doing justice to her memory—that being more Muslim would in some way take away the guilt I felt because of the pain she died with."

The film is dedicated to her and, Sharma said, he subconsciously sought out mother-child relationships in the homosexual men and women he interviewed. Each of my subjects are either interacting with their mothers or talking about them or speaking to their mothers on the phone."

After traveling to 12 countries for 6 years and secretly filming the struggles of many Muslims to reconcile and cling to their religious beliefs, despite all the taboos, while coping with their homosexual desires, Sharma came away from the experience with his own Muslim identity strengthened. "I learned to respect religion much more. I understood profoundly why the majority of humanity holds on to some kind of faith. You can’t make a film such as this and come away untouched."

What had the biggest influence in his youth were the Bollywood productions and the film magazines his mother subscribed to. One of his favorite pastimes as a kid was to cut out images of famous stars and design his own movie posters and write little blurbs about the films. He began learning about a different kind of filmmaking when he went to the Islamic university Jamia Millia Islamia, the second best in India. One of the first things he had to do was a frame by frame analysis of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and he was introduced to a wide variety of filmmakers, from Bunuel to Hitchcock, and films, from Gone with the Wind to the Thief of Baghdad.

Since then, he has garnered three master’s degrees, including one from American University in Washington, D.C., become proficient in five languages, including English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Punjabi, and worked as a print and TV journalist before he became fed up with boiling down fascinating interviews into little sound bites.

Dapper in a bright red shirt, with nary a trace of accent or the anger that initially provoked him to make A Jihad for Love, Sharma said he aimed to strip away that five letter word from the western concept of holy war into the literal Arabic meaning of "struggle" or "to strive in the path of God."

He first got an inkling of that international struggle through a "window to the world" in college while editing a gay magazine when he learned about a gay Southeast Asian organization in San Francisco called Trikone. "I knew that one day I would want to be in this country. I came here in September, 2000, one year before 9/11 on a student visa."

Sharma had not met with any discrimination before 9/11, "but then everything changed," he said. He was at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., helping to edit some video when he saw the plane hit the Pentagon. He suddenly got a call from a Sikh friend who had grown up in the U.S. but was bad-mouthed as "Iranian" during the Iran hostage crisis. He told Sharma, "You need to get home as soon as possible. Get off the street because if this has anything to do with Muslims which it probably does. Be careful. You’re new in this country and you don’t know the kind of hate that’s going to follow."

One of Sharma’s best friends, a black woman, told him , "Now you’ll know what it feels like because you guys are going to be the new blacks."

He had begun making a student film "in a fun way with what I grew up with. I was just figuring out who I was, but then I began being called "a dirty Arab" and being spat on and that led me to becoming much more political around my Islamic identity. Before 9/11 you might have an Islamic part of your life, but America was still good and hopeful. Then many people were pushed out of the closet and radicalized. They were angry and vulnerable. They felt targeted through no fault of theirs and they felt they needed to speak up for this religion. For the first time, I was aware of many things about myself, of being Muslim, of being brown, of being an outsider. So there was a lot of churning and a lot of anger."

He put together a 22-minute trailer and sent it to Michael Lumpkin who invited him to the Frameline festival. "It was my first festival and it was a completely different film and not one I’m particularly proud of. There was an amazing response, but there were also people troubled by the anger they sensed in the film. They thought I was really angry and I knew I was.

"But into the second year of shooting, I realized I could not make it about the Muslim experience in America because it was not my experience. Many things in American culture were alien to me still. These were people who grew up as minorities, went to American high schools, talked a different way. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And also it was the kind of labeling that happens here. I think people are very easily putting themselves into little boxes here. "I am gay." "I am queer." "I am lesbian." I never grew up with labeling like that. I never used the word to describe myself. The words used in India are very derogatory. In the U.S., many people had the choice to leave their religion."

He soon realized he would have to shoot in Muslim countries where people did not know what it means to leave their religion. "It’s your family. It’s the music you listen to. It’s the prayer call at dawn. Those are powerful ties and that was the film I wanted to make."

In hindsight, Sharma said, "I think I was remarkably brave because I still have an Indian passport and to get visas I had to say I was going for tourism or educational reasons. Pakistan and Bangladesh are not friendly neighbors to India so it’s very hard to get those visas. But when you do arrive, it’s ok because you’re basically the same kind of people and speak the same languages."

He kept going back to Egypt for three years because he had met an Egyptian refugee in France and needed his back story as well. He had spent a year in an Egyptian prison because Mubarak’s government in 2001 had arrested 52 gay people from a night club on June 21, 2001, and put them in prison. The next day a newspaper said the people were in a satanic cult and were arrested for trying to invent a new religion and they also practice deviant behavior such as sodomy.

"Egypt was very important to me. Sharma explained. "For at least a thousand years and perhaps longer, Egypt has been at the heart of intellectual Islamic thinking, especially in Arab countries. The largest Islamic university in the world is in Cairo. I needed to experience first hand the sense of entitlement or arrogance that the Arabs feel over Islam so that people like me from India or Pakistan or elsewhere aren’t really as Muslim as they are."

It has been an amazing journey, he said, but difficult to keep carrying the burden of others’ problems. "I need at some point to come out of this film because this has been my only identity for six years. There has been no other me. It’s been my main way to engage in the world. I don’t think that could be completely healthy. Just the title of the film has been a big enough burden to carry."

That burden may have been eased with the relationship he has had for four years living with a musician in New York, proving that opposite attract. "He’s as American as American can be," Sharma said. "He’s a corn-fed, blue-eyed blond from Nebraska, an atheist who does not believe in God, and a little bit of a piano prodigy."

At that, he might provide a unique input to Sharma’s next production: a Bollywood musical. Just a touch of Nebraska corn.

[Editor’s note: A Jihad for Love was produced by one-time Bay Area resident Sandi DuBowski.]