Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Coming Out... Not as Gay, but as a Muslim

‘A Jihad for Love’ (director, Parvez Sharma)
Next screening: Friday, July 18 – 14:50 at the Spiral Hall

For a long time, we have been accustomed to seeing stories about queer people who want nothing but to escape their communities of origin, whether geographic or religious in nature. These stories ring true because they reflect the reality of many of our lives. Many of us, certainly in North America and Europe, did grow up in stifling small-town environments where narrow-minded religious people and just general homophobia make life next to impossible for queer folk.

However, in the last 10 years or so we have started to see more stories about queer people who, despite the difficulties they face in living there, want to remain in their communities of origin. ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (which won Hilary Swank her first Oscar for Best Actress) and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ are both about queer or transgendered people who, for better or worse, want to remain in rural America, a place regularly depicted (and often unfairly) as a kind of hell for queer people. It is more clear in the original short story than in the film, but the characters in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ know that they could move to a big city, like Denver, and live an urban gay lifestyle. But that’s not what they want for themselves.

This is an important development in the history of queer storytelling, because as we all know, urban queer life is not a paradise either. Even C. Jay Cox’s ‘Kiss the Bride’ (screening twice at this year’s festival) deals with a person who may or may not be gay, but in any case bucks the trend of embracing an urban queer lifestyle to such an extent that not only does he stay in his hometown, but he marries a woman!

In 2004, Sandi Dubowski’s ground-breaking documentary ‘Trembling Before G-d’ (it is forbidden in orthodox Judaism to write the name of God) took us inside the lives of orthodox Jews who are queer and want to reconcile their religion with their sexuality, rather than abandoning it. Now, Dubowski (this time as Producer) has teamed up with director Parvez Sharma to give us a glimpse of the lives of queer Muslims who, similarly, don’t want to give up their communities or their faith for their sexuality. This award-winning film is extremely important, and we are delighted to be able to screen it twice at this year’s festival (you can catch it again this Friday, July 18 – 14:50 at the Spiral Hall), as well as to welcome Parvez Sharma and Sandi Dubowski to Tokyo.

As his comments below clearly show, Sharma is able to speak both passionately about this film, and about the hope for a reconciliation between Islam and homosexuality, and to make us laugh at the same time.

Before the first screening, director Parvez Sharma gave his message to the audience:

“I’d like to thank you all for coming. This is only our second day in Japan ever and we’re really enjoying this wonderful country. This film has screened at 18 festivals around the world. It is an honour for us to be here, and we want to thank Sugawara-san for inviting us. I hope you enjoy the film.”

Afterward, Nishimura-san, one of our volunteer PR staff and a skilled translator himself, joined Parvez and Sandi on stage for a Q & A session.

Nishimura: We’d like to welcome back our special guests, the director and producer of this wonderful film. It screened at the Toronto and Boston film festivals, and it is quite a unique and unusual film, so we are lucky to be able to see it elsewhere in the world. We’ll open the floor to questions after a few from myself. So I’d like to start by asking, what triggered you to make this film?

Parvez: I’m gay and Muslim myself, so that helped! It was my feeling that after September 11, 2001 a film needed to be made that would change the discussion around Islam. I like to say that in this film everyone is coming out not as gay or lesbian but as a Muslim.

Nishimura: Now Sandi, you are not Muslim but a Jewish Amercian. Why did you two decide to make this film together?

Sandi: I directed ‘Trembling Before G-d’ about gay people in the orthodox Jewish community, and I was doing a lot of inter-faith work around that film with Christians, Muslims and Jews. Parvez approached me at one of these events in Washington, D.C. with an idea for a film about queer Muslims, and here we are six years later.

Nishimura: Perhaps it was easier to raise money for ‘Trembling Before G-d’ than it was for this film. Did you run into any problems finding financing for the film? Our image in Japan is that Jews and Muslims don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.

Sandi: We like to say that Parvez and I have a Muslim-Jewish collaboration that is mostly non-violent! (laughter) [To Parvez] Do you want to talk about your search for the gay Sheikh who can fund us for the next 40 years? (laughter)

Parvez: It was difficult for us to find funding. Which is why I really have to thank and congratulate Sandi, because he opened a lot of doors for the film. I was a new immigrant in America when we started work on this film, and those same doors would not have been open to me. We like to say our film has the longest list of credits in history!

Sandi: We also like to say that we have a mailing list outside, and that we do accept credit cards. (laughter)

Nishimura: It took nearly six years to make this film. You travelled to 12 countries, and we hear 9 different languages in the film. It is a film of such diversity. What are the most memorable moments or challenges you faced in making it?

Parvez: Can we talk all night? (laughter) Every frame of this film has my blood on it. But it’s the same for any documentary filmmaker. Editing took one year and a half. And during that time, a lot of people who are in the film called me up to ask that their faces be blurred to hide their identities. So that is when the gay Muslim penguin with the blurred face entered the film. I was getting frustrated with the need for people to hide, so I blurred his face!

[For those who haven’t seen the film, there is a sequence with a gay Imam in South Africa, Muhsin Hendricks, who visits the seaside with his children and encounters several penguins. Sharma blurred the face of one of the penguins – a species notorious for its same-sex bonds – as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the need that many queer Muslims feel to conceal their identities.]

Making the film was very challenging. I was often shooting all by myself, with a handheld camera, because I had to pretend to just be a tourist. Egypt was a very difficult country for me. I had to make three separate trips there. And it was very difficult to convince people to appear in the film.

I met Maryam, the Moroccan lesbian in Paris who goes to Egypt, through a group of victims of domestic violence in Paris. When we met, she couldn’t even say the word ‘lesbian’. It took six years of talking to her to get her to that point.

The same was true of Mazen [a young man caught up in the raid of a gay club in Cairo, who was imprisoned and tortured for two years]. When we started filming, he insisted on hiding his face. It took three years for him to show his face to us on camera.

I had this much hair when I started the film [Sharma held a hand above his head, as if to suggest a huge, flowing mane of hair], and now it’s all gone! (laughter)

Nishimura: We’d like to open it up to questions from the audience. Are there any mysteries you would like to have revealed, about gay penguins, or anything else? (laughter)

1st audience member: Thank you very making a film that is not just about religion but is very human. Many of us are wondering, what has happened to the subjects of your film?

Parvez: Thank you for your question. Of course, in any documentary, the lives of the subjects go on after the film stops. I am still close to all of these people; they have become my friends.

Muhsin, the gay Imam in South Africa, has had a lot of success. You see some of these signs of hope near the end of the film [when he is invited to speak to a group of Muslim clerics who had previously rejected him to discuss homosexuality and Islam]. His daughter, who you see in the film, is now 14 years old, and she was able to attend a screening of the film in South Africa, where she stood up in front of the audience and told them she was proud of her father.

Mazen is still living in Paris, and he has had some trouble finding work there.

The four Iranians are all now living in Toronto.

[Parvez later told me that they were able to attend a screening of the film when it played the Toronto International Film Festival.]

Maryam is no longer wearing the Hijab, because she couldn’t find work in Paris while wearing it. But she also still thinks that she wants to be punished by God for being a lesbian.

[In the film she explains that while non-Muslims tend to see the Hijab as a sign of female oppression in Islam, she has never been interested in being attractive to men, so for her wearing the Hijab makes her feel free.]

And, let me add, to clarify – in many Muslim countries, if you choose to be invisible, it’s okay. You can live your life. It’s only when you adopt a Western idea of gay pride that the problem starts. But it’s not the case that gays and lesbians are being killed all the time in the Muslim world.

2nd audience member: Thank you for this film. As a Japanese person, it is shocking for us to see this conflict between homosexuality and Islam. I think, you’re a human being first, and a person of faith second. How difficult would it be for you simply to abandon your religion for the sake of your sexuality?

Parvez: It’s very difficult. Islam is really practiced in community. There are large families, extended families. Leaving that whole social system is very hard. It is not just about beliefs. It affects the way you eat, the way you dress. But there are Muslims who have left Islam because they are gay. I filmed some of them. They are often people who have moved to the West, but there are also some living in Muslim countries. I chose not to include them in the film, because I was interested in this question of how people who want to remain in the faith manage to do it.

Islam really is a total system of beliefs, a whole universe in itself. I’ve been blogging about these issues at http://ajihadforlove.blogspot.com/ and people around the world are participating in that dialogue, so I encourage you to visit the blog and offer your own thoughts.

I also have a question. If we made a T-Shirt with the blurred gay penguin, would it be a hit in Japan? (laughter)

Nishimura: Well, it’s been a serious discussion, but Parvez and Sandi have shown that they are both very cheerful and unique individuals. So if you are looking for a date, you can feel free to leave your telephone number and email address on the blog! (laughter)

Sandi: Thanks also to our translator, who did a wonderful job. (applause)

Translator: And thank you to Nishimura-san, for the wonderful work of leading the Q & A session. (applause)

Soon to follow: An email interview with director Parvez Sharma...

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