Addressing the students of Columbia University last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.” A laughable statement, to be sure, but if there are any fewer gays and lesbians in Iran than there are in America, perhaps it’s in part because—as Parvez Sharma documents in A Jihad for Love —many have had to flee their homeland in order to escape extreme punishment, or even execution, at the hands of the fundamentalist Islamic Republic. In his directorial debut, Sharma puts sympathetic countenances (although the actual faces are often blurred out, due to fear of reprisals) on the external and internal struggles of faithful Muslims who are also homosexuals. Properly promoted, the honest humanity of this festival fave has the potential to attract crossover crowds—although A Jihad for Love will likely find its biggest audiences on TV and DVD.
As in Christianity, the condemnation of homosexuality as a sin in Islam is based in part on an arguable interpretation of the story of the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—one that is eloquently disputed by outspoken South African Muhsin Hendricks in the first segment of A Jihad for Love. ( Jihad, it should be noted, is used here in the basic sense of a “struggle” or “to strive in the path of God” without the current connotation of holy war.) Like the rest of Sharma’s subjects, Hendricks is a devout Muslim who struggles to reconcile his faith and his sexuality—which he unsuccessfully tried to deny by first submersing himself in religious studies and then marrying a woman and fathering children. When he came out, he feared for not only his livelihood (he was promptly asked to resign from the two schools at which he was teaching) but also for his life. Indeed, in an on-camera debate with an imam, the other man stubbornly states that the only argument that can be made over the Quranic account of Sodom and Gomorrah is how those who engage in homosexual acts should be put to death.
While the suffering—whether physical, psychological or emotional—of Hendricks and others locked in similar struggles in Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and France is touching on a human level, perhaps the only criticism that could be leveled at A Jihad for Love is that, even at 81 minutes, it begins to seem a bit repetitive. Sharma has made a poignant portrait of these men and women, but he might also have tried to transcend documenting their personal plights and speculate a little more on positive solutions that might one day end their struggle.
Distributor: First Run
Director/Screenwriter: Parvez Sharma
Producers: Sandi DuBowski and Parvez Sharma
Genre: Documentary; English-, Arabic-, Farsi-, Urdu-, Turkish-, Hindi-, and French-language, subtitled
Running time: 81 min.
Release date: May 21 NY, June 20 Houston, June 27 Boston, August 1 LA, August 8 San Diego, August 22 SF, September 5 DC