Six years after un-closeting the Orthodox Jewish homosexual community in Trembling Before G-d, filmmaker Sandi Dubowski brings his documentary mensch sensibility to open another dialogue on faith and tolerance, this time on behalf of Muslim gays and lesbians around the world. Jihad for Love, by first-time feature director Parvez Sharma, follows the globetrotting, multi-character arc of Dubowski’s film; by establishing the worldwide ubiquity of homosexuality among many believers as a structural lynchpin of their rhetorical argument for tolerance, Sharma and producer Dubowski opt for breadth over depth. Alternating between nearly a dozen subjects situated in South Africa, Paris, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and India, the film captures numerous compelling stories of the struggle among Muslim homosexuals for the right to be accepted, or in some cases, to live: a gay imam is confronted on a talk show radio with death threats (“They must cut off his fucking arse” and “We should definitely bring back the death sentence for this guy”); an Egyptian is imprisoned and tortured for two years before seeking asylum in France, where even there he is reluctant to reveal his identity; and a gay Iranian escapes to Turkey, where he awaits his fate (asylum to Canada or extradition back to Iran).
Collectively, these subjects wield a sobering impact that will cause viewers in more tolerant societies to take their freedoms of sexual self-determination less for granted. Individually, the experiences these compelling characters have to offer feel cramped by the narrative, which hits the highlights of each story before moving on to the next. The results leave one wishing that Sharma and Dubowski spent more time with any one of these characters as each engages in the struggle with themselves and their respective communities at greater length. The extroverted imam Muhsin Hendricks could easily have commanded a feature for himself, as suggested by such powerful scenes as a showdown of Koranic wits with a less tolerant imam, or a morbidly funny discussion with his children about whether they would save him from being stoned. A fearful, at times suffocating perspective dominates the proceedings, reflective of the social claustrophobia experienced by the characters; a welcome and purposeful counterpoint would have been to include more scenes of engagement with the greater Muslim community to interrogate the social and cultural underpinnings of its homophobia. But perhaps carving enough space for the previously unheard voices of Muslim gays to speak is enough to ask of this socially groundbreaking work.