Film directed by Parvez Sharma
Written by Parvez Sharma, Sajid Akbar, and Alison Amron
I will never visit Mecca or see the Black Rock in person. Not being raised in Islam or inclined to conversion to it or any other faith, I will not live to see a day when a non-Muslim may travel to the destination of so many pilgrims. Moreover, filming the Hajj is also forbidden, though it remains unclear to me who has done the forbidding- the Saudi government or religious authorities or, most likely, a collaboration of both. A few years ago, the Vice people smuggled out some long shots of the rituals around the Kabba. That is the first film that I know of that captures the complete stages of the pilgrimage, though there may be others.
Sharma is a gay man born in India, now married and living in New York City. As an outsider within his religion, he proves a remarkably adept guide to the entire journey asked of every Muslim at least once in their lives. Even so, this could have been Rough Guide to the Hajj. Throughout his time in Saudi Arabia, the danger of being both gay and filming the sacrosanct lend an exceptional tension to the film. Yet, I don’t know if that would have raised the whole enterprise beyond the level of watching Anthony Bourdain eat the parts of some poor animal prepared as a local delicacy someplace with questionable hygiene. Really, we’re all reduced to waiting for the inevitable unfortunate backlash, hoping the filmmaker merely pays for their transgressions with a little discomfort and a quick flight home.
No, the art here is the open-hearted invitation from Sharma to join him on a journey to understand the faith of his mother and his ancestors. He longs to appreciate the necessity of the Hajj. True, his innate questioning throttles the power of the experience back from transcendence, but he is not alone. Many of those around him have clearly had enough of the bullying by the authorities too intent on keeping the crowds moving to provide adequate water, shelter, or sanitation. I am not denying that the experience of following the steps to redemption prescribed has a powerful affect on many of the participants, but rather that sustaining their focus on the transcendence of their journey has been significantly more difficult on an already difficult path. Sharma himself has moments of honest reflection on the significance of the stages, without which the film loses its heft.
Time and again, I find myself drawn back to works of art where the creator reveals something of their soul. Outside the world of A Sinner in Mecca, the rest of the world has not always welcomed Sharma as an openly gay Muslim who has revealed the censored. Much like Emile Zola and Woody Guthrie, the art is as much courageous as it is high craft. Comfort makes it too easy to remember that the artist must remain true to himself and sometimes proclaim that which no other will say.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 279 more to go.
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