A Sinner in Mecca – Sheffield Doc/Fest review

Patrick Harley reviews a fascinating exploration of the heart of Islam, screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest

When A Sinner in Mecca begins, it’s easy to assume director and subject Parvez Sharma’s sexuality will be the defining focus.

A gay man and a committed Muslim, the film’s opening establishes not just Sharma’s happily married life in New York City, but how far removed this is from Islam’s homeland of Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality – whether through mob-ruling or the court’s – remains punishable by death.

Now these two worlds are due to collide. Wishing to undertake Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca devout Muslims seek to complete at least once in their lifetime, Sharma is desperate to feel at one with the faith he’s held dear all his life. Already labelled an infidel for his previous film, A Jihad for Love, the journey ahead does not look smooth.

What Sharma discovers is surprising. Filming surreptitiously using smartphones and flip-cameras, he captures the heart of Islam in a hitherto unseen light, revealing a religion not only in conflict with modernity, but also itself.

With pilgrims busy making phone calls, taking selfies and clamouring through holy territory leaving litter in their wake, Sharma’s experience resembles the chaos of a tourist attraction far more than a passage to serenity. This experience has been packaged, commercialised and taken advantage of; some men sell moped rides to tired walkers, others offer sacrificial goats at a price. There’s even a mall mere metres away from the Kaaba.

‘I’m glad they don’t allow non-Muslims here, so the Western world can’t see this,’ one traveller comments – yet Sharma by no means seeks to undermine his own faith, simply to explore it. He may feel like a sinner, but as he walks amongst everyone from devout shoppers to honour killers, we have to wonder: is it Islam that must accept him, or him that must accept Islam?

Innately subjective and by no means perfect, the film remains a fascinating insight into a world most will never be able to see. If early reports and heated Q&As are anything to go by, responses will be as intensely personal as the content.