GAZE 2015 – A Sinner In Mecca

It’s been over a year since my last post, and a couple of missed opportunities to write have flown on by – GAZE 2014, and the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum being the main ones of note. It has, however, also been a while since I have seen a film that made me want to get back here – this weekend, as part of GAZE 2015 (Dublin’s LGBT film festival), I went to see Parvez Sharma’s A Sinner in Mecca and I got the urge to share some thoughts…

To set the scene, I was really excited about going to see this film. I had seen the trailer posted online a couple of months ago, and for anyone who has read any of my previous posts, I have an interest in LGBT life in the Middle East. I was hoping to learn more about Mecca, hajj and Islam in a first hand documentary in Saudi Arabia – creating this film in itself was a huge step, particularly as filming is banned in Mecca. On top of that, films coming out of Saudi Arabia are rare at best, and I was hoping this would follow in the footsteps of the wonderful Wadjda.

Unfortunately, the trailer set this film up to be more of a documentary than it was in reality. The tension surrounding Sharma’s filming in Mecca was mentioned twice at best, and as he was using a smartphone to record, it must have been more than obvious to passers-by. After a powerful opening, showing the dialogue the director has with a gay man in Saudi Arabia online, the director’s sexuality plays almost no role in this film. As the film continues it becomes clear that there is no substance to this documentary shot on a smartphone – I would have hoped for more interviews away from Mecca to intersect the repeated shots of the Kaaba, and a discussion of the apparent topic of this film, i.e. being a member of the Muslim LGBT community. Of course, I understand this may not be easy to get on camera, but after such a strong opening, the documentary failed to keep up this momentum.

I was hoping to leave the screening with a greater understanding on homosexuality in the Muslim world, of faith and sexuality, and a struggle to combine these. To a greater extent I was also hoping for an increased understanding of life in Saudi Arabia.

While hajj was explained as Sharma completed the stages of his pilgrimage, it would have been interesting to hear from the non-LGBT community more about the significance of this journey. Unfortunately the film feels like Sharma set off on a personal journey to find a place for his sexuality and faith to be able to coexist, but in reality, it falls short of the expectations set out by the trailer and hype around the film.

I know I was not the only one to feel this way, my boyfriend and friend who came along to the screening felt the same, and despite the director being in attendance, the room emptied pretty quickly as soon as the final credits started to roll.

What had potential to be such an interesting subject matter, and a groundbreaking documentary, is unfortunately 80 minutes many of us will not get back.

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Coming Out (1989)

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I really wanted to like this film. Truly. I tried. Unfortunately I could only stand to watch half and that was, to be honest, only because I enjoyed the shots of Berlin back in the late 80s and noting how the Alexanderplatz/Weinmeisterstraße area still looks the same today.

I realise that perhaps I am being unfair comparing Coming Out, produced in East Germany in 1989, to Taxi zum Klo from the West in 1980. These are very different films, from very different places and from very different and turbulent times and the fact that this film was made at all is something that should be praised. However, this film has aged and died, much like the the Communist East and its one party politics, rapidly.

The film is essentially (without wanting to ruin the plot) about a man who struggles with his sexuality and forms a relationship with a woman. He is a teacher. He soon realises he is perhaps gay. He explores this and, from what I can tell from the Wikipedia page, in the part of the film that I skipped, he falls in love with a character who made an appearance earlier in the film. This is all very well but I found it uncomfortable and just another one of those stories about a gay-man-in-a-heterosexual-relationship-who-stuggles-with-his-sexuality-and-eventually-leaves-his-girlfriend.

This really wasn’t the groundbreaking queer cinema classic I was expecting and it seems to be riding off the back of its, albeit spectacular historical timing (it screened on the night the Berlin Wall fell), instead of off the back of its storyline, cinematography and passion.

(I do not own this image, nor this film (thankfully)).

The Sessions Review for Warwick Arts Centre

Directed by the relatively unknown Ben Lewin, this beautifully emotional piece of cinema stole the show at the 2012 Sundance Film FestivalThe Sessions explores the themes of sexuality, disability and religion in a refreshing and humorous light, based on the essays of Mark O’Brien (played here by John Hawkes, who’s also currently onscreen in Lincoln), a sufferer of polio confined to a iron lung for many of his waking and sleeping hours, and his experiences working with a sex therapist and surrogate called Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt(As Good As It Gets)

The film is heart-warming with a wealth of interesting and varied characters. Hunt and Hawkes both give wonderful performances, which have been reflected in this year’s Golden Globe and for Hunt,Academy Award nominations. The film is honest, emotional and turns everything you thought you knew about human relationships, disability, religion and sexuality on its head. William H. Macy (Shameless) plays the thoroughly modern Father Brendan, who helps Mark realise the boundaries of his faith are perhaps not as black and white as he once thought, while Cheryl helps him realise that his disability does not have to limit his sexuality.

This film is a fantastic insight into the world of Mark O’Brien, and was produced in his memory, creating a fitting tribute I think he would be proud of.

The Sessions has been a runaway success with critics and audiences worldwide and runs until Thu 14 Feb at Warwick Arts Centre – perfect for an unconventional Valentine’s date!

For the review and Art Centres website click here.

Keep The Lights On (2012)

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Personally I wouldn’t agree with Time Out, New York, nor would I with Attitude. You do not “simply have to see it”, and while it might be “provocative” it certainly isn’t “engaging” – so much so that I turned it off about an hour in. Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On was far too slow paced, and I didn’t particularly find the characters engaging. At first I thought it would be an interesting approach, but once Paul lit up his crack pipe I realised it was just going to be another queer film with too many drugs. Now I understand that you can’t just portray the great, you also have to portray the ugly. Trust me, I have seen enough depressing films over the course of my degree to confirm this (Deutschland, bleiche Mutter… anyone?), but unlike the fantastic Weekend by Andrew Haigh (2011), this queer film about drug addiction and love just doesn’t seem to impress in the way that Weekend did. Haigh’s film is deeply impressive, moving, entertaining and thought-provoking. Plus it is enjoyable to watch. The characters fall in love but there are still issues.

In Keep the Lights On Erik is just flogging a dead horse yet, despite this there is still something about Erik that doesn’t really make you want to sympathise with him. When Erik sat on the edge of the bed Paul was having sex with a prostitute in, on the verge of tears, holding Paul’s hand, I decided it was time to call it a night…

(I do not own this image).