A Jihad for Love

jihadLips That Would Kiss: A Jihad for Love (First Run Features)

(Originally published in the September 6, 2008, issue of Northwest Asian Weekly as “Film about homosexuality in Islam unfocused.”)

Digital disfiguration turns out to be the order of the day in A Jihad for Love, a documentary by the veteran journalist and first-time filmmaker Parvez Sharma. Fearing for their safety, and for the well-being of their families, more than half the interviewees that Sharma records have their faces and other identifying features (including the backs of their heads) deliberately blurred.

The resulting 81-minute video consists of close-ups of noses, chins, and lips in perfect clarity, while the camera otherwise remains out-of-focus. Even a flock of penguins, incongruously waddling through a residential neighborhood (yet seemingly in no danger from a fatwa), undergoes digitized anonymity. Furthermore, there’s a sequence of two little girls riding in the back seat of a car (driven by their daddy) in which entire frames are so monochromatically blotted as to resemble a series of strung-together Rorschach tests. Beholding these fuzzy canvases, the viewer can see whatever he or she wants to see.

But what about the subject matter? Isn’t the importance of what Sharma tries to do in tackling the taboo combo of sexuality and religion sufficient to trump concerns with the technical aspects of moviemaking? Well, to put it plainly, no.

In A Jihad for Love, Sharma, who is himself Muslim and homosexual, ventures across India, Iran, Turkey, and other countries to talk with lesbians and gay men of the Islamic faith. However, Sharma doesn’t spend enough time with any single individual or couple or group of persons so that we can get to know or care about them. The movie takes an emotionally volatile topic, one fraught with legal and humanitarian entanglements, yet neither finds the right tone for nor develops its multiple stories; Jihad, thus, feels weightless and disjointed when it ought to be deeply affecting.

There are some interesting asides here. For example, a lesbian in Cairo admits that she feels “really free” wearing the hijab, whereas most women would consider the head covering oppressive. Also, two middle-aged Turkish ladies in a long-term relationship, who believe that Islam can’t fully be comprehended without an appreciation for Sufism, attend a Sema, the Sufi dervish ritual wherein dozens of holy men whirl ’round and ’round in flowing white garb.

In the one genuinely moving segment, a quartet of 20-something Iranian men (two of them agree to be photographed, two of them don’t) seek exile in the secular Muslim climate of Turkey. (In their native Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death.) As they await news of a possible asylum to Canada, one young man, Mojtaba, reminisces in a sweet yet detached manner about his wedding. Lying on the ground, he looks skyward as he recalls how he and his beloved fed each other bits of cake. We never learn the fate of his partner; Sharma lets us assume the worst. (Given that Iranian police confiscated the wedding video, it’s difficult not to.)

Even if the sloppy, slapdash quality of the visuals weren’t undermining the movie’s intentions, Jihad would still be impeded by Sharma’s concentration on trivial details, such as the speculation on whether a parrot who dislikes contact with other birds, and who has refused to lay eggs for 19 years, might be gay. Worse still, for a film whose title evokes connotations of a holy war, A Jihad for Love fails to portray religious devotion convincingly. Despite quotations and readings from the Qur’an, the movie—which is more marketing concept than substance—never lends a sense of what the words and the spirit mean to the flesh. – NPT

August 16, 2008