The Saudi Arabia they don’t want you to see.
NOTE: This review for “A Sinner In Mecca” was written for and published on my former Blogger.com site, using my old rating scale. I have kept this review as was initially published.
After his film “A Jihad to Love” in 2007, filmmaker Parvez Sharma brings us a new documentary with “A Sinner In Mecca”, along with sense of fright one only expect from a horror film. The reason for this is because in this documentary, Parvez travels to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for his Hajj. In Saudi Arabia, it is forbidden to film and it’s forbidden to be homosexual. He literally risks his life throughout the film to bring us such the powerful and insightful film he has. It’s mostly filmed with just his iPhone, carried by himself and often filming covertly to avoid being discovered. But “A Sinner In Mecca” is not just him documenting a Muslim’s Hajj, but also of his own personal Hajj.
The film starts off with some of Parvez’ background, most notably that he lives in New York City with his husband. There is some home-movie feeling video that helps to capture part of who he is – a Muslim immigrant who has recently married his American atheist husband. There’s a cute video of them going to get married at the Courthouse including the actual ceremony. We also are treated to a gathering at Thanksgiving with the two of them and friends. With some of the commentary during this, Parvez notes that he feels at odds with who he is as a gay Muslim, adding in complications that his Indian mother did not approve prior to her death from cancer. Thus, he undergoes the Hajj to Mecca to try and resolve this internal crisis. He also, as the story goes on, notes that he feels that modern-day Islam is also undergoing an identity crisis within itself and notes this a handful of times during the film.
As a side note, all those of Muslim faith are required to undertake a Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca during the week of Hajj, at least once in their lifetime. Thus, the importance of Parvez going on such a dangerous journey in the first place. It should also be noted that non-Muslim’s are forbidden to enter Mecca all together, which makes the entire documentary unique from that angle alone. We are shown a first-hand view of a Hajj, seeing sites and locations that we can only at best view from photos. I won’t go into the actual stages of the Hajj, which Parvez takes us through on his day by day journey – but rather I encourage you to watch this film to get that insight and understanding.
Being a documentary, and one that was primarily filmed on his iPhone discretely, I’m going to overlook all of the typical cinematography elements because they don’t necessarily apply. There are blurred shots, shots where you can’t quite see what is really going on, and more. I feel that actually helps the overall film because it adds a realness we can relate to. (Essentially what Blair Witch Project did to mainstream film when it came out.) There are also some sound issues but again, those are understandable given the manner it was filmed. For those of you who do not speak Arabic or Hindu (myself included!), the moments where it is spoken, he has subtitled the words for us in English. He also tries to be clear about where he is at, whether in New York, Saudi Arabia, or India.
Overall, the flow of the “A Sinner In Mecca” works. Some reviews noted they would have liked to have seen more of his life at home prior to his journey. Personally, I felt like it was not all needed, or at least the Thanksgiving dinner felt extra. His marriage to his husband is needed because it helps understand his torn situation, especially as he notes that his mother would not have approved either. The only bit of the film that felt odd in terms of placement, was when he reflects back on his honeymoon to India with his husband. This happens after he’s already in Saudi Arabia and started his Hajj, so it felt like a step backwards rather than the reflection I believe it was intended to give. When Parvez returns to India to complete his Hajj, that is well explained at works with the flow. It actually gives the entire documentary a great ending as he explains where he stands after the Hajj as a gay Muslim. Again, I’ll let his words speak for him and insist that you watch this film.
I mentioned earlier about the sense of fright – this solely comes from the situation he enters in Saudi Arabia. There are certain moments where it builds up because of how his Hajj went. Some were from editing afterwards too, but most were issues at that moment. When his life is potentially on the line, as a viewer we can only estimate what he was going through at those moments.
If you are not a Muslim, I encourage you to watch “A Sinner In Mecca”. It gives an oversight into the faith that is hard to research and learn. The actual locations in Mecca that Parvez shows us cannot be seen by most of us – that alone makes this film watchable. But better than that, this documentary is a powerful story of how a gay Muslim comes to acknowledge and accept all of who he is. While IMDB scores “A Sinner In Mecca” rather low at 4.5/10.0, I’d give it an 8.0 because despite being filmed on a phone camera, it’s daring and eye-opening. Take the evening and learn something new about a culture and religion you might not know much.