DocWatch – Mecca on an iPhone

They Kill Goats, Don’t They

A Sinner in Mecca

Dir. Parvez Sharma , USA, 2015, 79 minutes

A Sinner in Mecca is a deeply warmhearted ode to humanity despite the journey that it chronicles, and despite its grim opening scene, the beheading of a gay man, for being gay, in the Saudi city of Medina.

Just Another Pilgrim in White

Just Another Pilgrim in White

Yes, beheadings are a common form of punishment in the Arab world, outside of those territories held by ISIL. And, if you’re gay, much of that region can feel like ISIL is ruling it.

So it’s courageous, also quixotic and dangerous, for the Indian-born filmmaker Parvez Sharma (A Jihad for Love), married to a man in the United States, to make the haj to Mecca, the holiest place in Islam, and to film the trip on his iPhone. If he were to have declared publicly that the film would be a gay man’s perspective on the haj, or even that he was making a film in film-phobic Saudi Arabia, he might have found out just how brutal Saudi justice could be.

Filming from the Dark Side

Filming from the Dark Side

It won’t be giving too much away to say that Sharma survived to tell his tale, and to show it. Logistically, A Sinner in Mecca is not Tangerine, the fleurs du mal iPhone tour de force du jour, but it is still a triumph. A forbidden iPhone follows Sharma arriving and being subsumed into the mass of humanity, all dressed in white, that circles the Kaaba (the most sacred building in Islam). We then see many of those pilgrims making sacrifices to Allah in devotion. Those sacrifices tend to be goats, and you can imagine that happens when zealous pilgrims outnumber goats in Mecca.

The Sinner in Unfriendly Territory

The Sinner in Unfriendly Territory

Intercut with Sharma’s unique footage of the haj, and a visit to a mall in the shadow of the Kaaba – why isn’t that profane? – we get plenty of pro forma home iPhone movies with friends in NY that remind you that our filmmaker is a regular guy. There are also heartfelt remembrances of his mother who never accepted her son’s homosexuality. Clearly, our narrator seeks her approval more than he seeks that of Islam’s elders. In this film, Sharma does manage to remind us that homophobia is a relative term – a mother can disapprove of you, and the Saudi religious police can behead you. Or, in Syria, ISIL can push you off the roof of a building, where a crowd is waiting to see you hit the ground. Or, in Afghanistan, you can be stoned to death, also in front of an eager crowd.

Part of what’s appealing about A Sinner in Mecca is that it makes its journey, and its arguments, in a stealth no budget way. I noticed mentions of film funds that supported the project, and I wondered what they paid for – travel, security. Someone else ot hold the phone while it observed Sharma? What’s crucial is that the film is there, and that Sharma has set an example for other filmmakers to follow, documenting people and places that would go undocumented otherwise and would only exist in documentation in the form of their official presentation – sort of like the videos of police brutality, without which we would only have the police’s accounts of events.

A Sinner in Mecca is a seat of your pants effort. What else could it be, given the restrictions in the holy city? But at least it’s there. Somehow I think that the Saudi police will be watching out for the next Parvez Sharma. If they catch that person, the punishment won’t be fun.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.