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For a gay filmmaker, filming in Saudi Arabia presents two serious challenges: filming is forbidden in the country and homosexuality is punishable by death. For filmmaker Parvez Sharma, however, these were risks he had to assume as he embarked on his Hajj pilgrimage, a journey considered the greatest accomplishment and aspiration within Islam, his religion. On his journey Parvez aims to look beyond 21st-century Islam’s crises of religious extremism, commercialism and sectarian battles. He brings back the story of the religion like it has never been told before, having endured the biggest jihad there is: the struggle with the self.
Having watched this filmmakers previous film A Jihad for Love, I was very curious to see this. Just saw it on Netflix and the film is still haunting me.
This is probably one of the most morally complex and visually rich documentaries I have ever seen. The courage of the filmmaker is never in doubt, his morality as it relates to Islam is. This film takes us on an extraordinary journey through the protagonist who is also the filmmaker. Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia come remarkably alive through his hidden cellphone footage.There is a visceral, dreamlike quality throughout and the filmmaker is not afraid of cinematic abstraction. The film remarkably avoids self indulgence which would be easy given its nature. The love story that lies at the heart of the film is beautifully depicted. An unknown world in Saudi Arabia opens up to us and the result is like we too are clandestine viewers--we are disobediently peeping into the forbidden. The musical choices are remarkable--he even uses heavy metal at one point. Many sequences are extremely hard to watch but they are underlined by a deep dignity. Being mostly shot on an iPhone as the voice over tells us could be a distraction but the filmmaker actually turns it into one of the biggest assets of the film. We become witnesses to a forbidden journey that is built carefully like a thriller spanning New York, Saudi Arabia and India. I personally come out of this film more enlightened and with a strong feeling that I have witnessed something I was not meant to see. The Hajj of the film is visceral and brutal. But in Mecca there is also peace and completion. My only peeve with the film: he could have chosen to show more of his life as a gay Muslim man married to an atheist and living in New York.