Leap of faith

Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love gives voice to gay Muslims.

RELIGIOUS COMRADES Gay Iranians awaiting asylum comfort each other in A Jihad for Love.

RELIGIOUS COMRADES Gay Iranians awaiting asylum comfort each other in A Jihad for Love.

"I could have made a very angry film," says director Parvez Sharma. "But with any religion, you cannot create change or dialogue if you condemn it."

Sharma, 34, is talking about his new documentary, A Jihad for Love, which gets released this week and looks at gay life in Muslim countries worldwide. He is sitting at a sidewalk caf in the East Village, looking bright and animated in his deep-aqua kurta, despite having just returned from a grueling seven-country tour to promote the film. And he's explaining why he was conscientious about making a film that has a positive attitude toward his faith, rather than expressing outrage with Islam for its rejection of gay folks.

"I censored myself at every step," he adds. "I always thought, How will a Muslim mother react to this?"

Perhaps that's because Sharma's own mother will never get the chance to react; she died when Sharma was in his twenties—right after he had come out to her and to his father. "She died angry," he says, explaining that his unresolved relationship with her left a wound that will never fully heal. "My father's still upset," he adds. "He and I have still never discussed my sexuality openly. He knows, but it's not a topic of discussion."

Even though he grew up in a secular, modern family in northern India, they lived in a neighborhood where the azaan (Muslim call to prayer) was heard four times a day. "It was really part of my life, but in a very national way—not indoctrinated," he says. It was Sharma's own experiences as a young gay Muslim that led him to explore this topic as the subject of his first film, traveling to a dozen countries over a five-year period and finding a range of gay, religious subjects along the way.

Sharma's journey to filmmaking began with being Indian. "Bollywood's in my blood," he says. After attending an Islamic university, he became a television journalist in his home country, reporting frequently on violence in Kashmir, and then studied journalism in London. "Reporting from the front lines of conflict, I realized I wanted to make a full-length documentary," he explains. "I was tired of compressing all the time." The idea for A Jihad for Love really cemented itself after September 11, when Sharma was living in Washington, D.C., and teaching Bollywood cinema at American University. "Being gay wasn't a problem really, but after September 11, being Muslim was a problem," he says, "and I felt I had to come out as a Muslim." When he began researching his documentary in that climate, he was struck by the question of, "What would it be like to empower someone to speak about Islam with deep respect for the religion?" And what if it was gay people, no less, who are outwardly rejected by the faith and its leaders?

He began his research in this country, interviewing members of the diasporic Muslim community, but soon switched focus to gay and lesbian Muslims living in their home countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and South Africa. That's when filmmaker Sandi DuBowski—known for his 2001 documentary, Trembling Before G-d, which looked at the conflicts of gay and lesbian religious Jews—came aboard the project as producer. "For me, Trembling was about the universal struggle to belong, and Jihad is as well," says DuBowski. "There are so many parallels between our faiths."

Sharma aimed to explore that desire to belong. "As a filmmaker, I was fascinated with the idea of staying in a faith when its condemnation of you is quite clear," he says. "As a consequence, I was drawn to more religious Muslims."

He says he found some of his subjects—which include an openly gay imam living in South Africa, a group of Iranian men waiting for asylum in Turkey, and a lesbian couple, one Moroccan and the other Egyptian, who carry on a secret love affair—through friends and organizations that work on issues concerning AIDS or human rights. Getting folks to confide in him, he admits, was quite a challenge. "I think it helps that I'm Muslim," he says. "But the trust building was intense. They certainly are not used to talking about these things."

By forming friendships with his subjects (personal involvement is a fact of his work, he says), Sharma gained even more understanding of why people would cling so strongly to a religion that rejects them. "It provides the feel of community," he explains. "You can't subtract the Muslim part of your identity when it defines your family, your friends, how you dress, what you eat. You can't just cut off that one thing. Through this film I learned that profoundly."

A Jihad for Love opens May 21, 2008 at the IFC Center.