A work of vital social and political import, A Sinner in Mecca chronicles director Parvez Sharma’s crisis of faith as he makes a hajj to Mecca, an annual pilgrimage that Muslims are obligated to undertake at least once in their lives. As in his prior A Jihad for Love, the documentary addresses Islam’s violent attitude toward homosexuality. This is immediately and brutally underlined in the opening moments, which show a man being publicly beheaded in broad daylight not far from a holy site in Saudi Arabia for alleged homosexual activities. The video was shot covertly by a bystander on a cellphone, and as filming is illegal in the Saudi kingdom, much of Sharma’s footage was also shot guerilla-style on his own phone.
Throughout, Sharma establishes a metaphoric connection between homosexuality and filmmaking: acts of defiance in the face of an intolerant, backward regime that punishes such deeds with flogging, imprisonment, and even death. As the filmmaker resides in New York City and is able to travel freely, unlike the victims of religious intolerance his films spotlight, his privileged position allows him to use the intrinsic visceral power of cinema to defy outdated cultural taboos and challenge autocratic hegemonies in the Islamic world.
Since the nature of Sharma’s project forced him to shoot in digital, the film’s visual palette and aesthetic ingenuity can exude a home-movie monotony, but there are moments when his lo-fi digital camera serves him well. The grainy nighttime footage of Medina’s ancient graveyard captures the site’s ghostly quality, where people come to illegally pray to Islam’s forgotten forebears, a practice outlawed by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious authorities as idol worship. Equally powerful is the first-person footage of the swirling mass of pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, which captures the vertigo of being at the heart of this crushing vortex at ground zero of a religion practiced by a quarter of the world’s population.
Sharma’s footage of his life in New York City may detract from Sinner in Mecca’s overall sense of urgency and purpose, though it does function as an important counterpoint to the restrictions on sexual and artistic self-expression in the Muslim world. While the ability to get married, attend a gay-pride parade, and celebrate Thanksgiving with his friends and loved ones is no doubt extremely significant to Sharma, whatever feelings these events evoke in him fail to come across to the viewer in a compellingly relevant manner. Perhaps because they lack the sense of dread and imminent danger of his pilgrimage footage, these scenes come off as navel-gazing, moments of subjective complacency that pale in comparison to the objective cultural analysis and impassioned political activism of the rest of the film.
As an extended exploration of the way in which Islamic cultural mores shaped Sharma’s own life and drew him to the cause of LBGT rights in Muslim world, footage of his travels to his hometown in India and reminiscences about his homophobic mother carry more analytical weight, though these too feel like narrative padding to the doc’s already slender 79-minute runtime. Sinner in Mecca too often feels like two different projects—Sharma’s personal journey of self-discovery and an investigation of Wahhabism’s negative influence on modern Islam—crammed into one, ultimately leaving both sides underdeveloped.
What the film lacks in narrative unity and aesthetic splendor it makes up in moral grandeur and ethical purpose. A Sunni, Sharma undertakes the hajj in the company of Shia’s adherents, who are perceived as mortal enemies by Wahhabis in their deeply intolerant form of Sunnism. This show of cross-denominational solidarity is yet another act of defiance on his part in a larger effort to break down the numerous barriers that have bred violence and hatred within Islam practically since its inception. Sharma openly criticizes everything he sees as being wrong in the Muslim world today, from internecine violence to Wahhabism’s rabid intolerance and Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Islam’s physical and ethical heritage. He lingers on untold piles of filthy trash heaps that line every pilgrimage site along the hajj not as a judgmental outsider, but as true believer who feels Muslims owe it to themselves above all else to practice a more humane, tolerant, responsible, and conscientious form of Islam.