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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Wadjda (2012)

03Last week Wadjda finally came to cinemas here in Germany. Ever since I first saw the trailer for Haifaa al-Mansour’s film, I knew this film was going to be worth going to see – not only in a historical sense, this being the first feature film to be filmed by a woman in Saudi Arabia, but also because the concept was so appealing. Recently I have been watching a couple of documentaries about Saudi Arabia and the film provided ever more insight into what is a relative unknown. Sure, we have vague images of what Saudi Arabian life is like, and the odd film snippet, but this was the first film to be shot entirely on the streets of Riyadh and therefore offers so much more.

I watched a couple of interviews with al-Mansour before going to the cinema and was really impressed by what she had to say – I was also particularly interested in what she had to say about her previous work and this is something I would love to see.

Wadjda is a heartwarming, humorous and, at times, deeply moving portrayal of so many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia today – despite the premise that the film is about a girl and her longing for a bike, the film is about so much more. Throughout we learn about her relationship with her mother, her father, other girls, boys, religion, and social values and pressures. Wadjda lives with her mother – we see how her mother struggles with the burden of socials pressures in a different way to her daughter. Here we begin to see a generational gap, further represented by Wadjda’s friendship with Abdullah (an unrelated boy, and thus a friendship that would be frowned upon). Wadjda’s mother is mostly very supportive of her daughter, occasionally pulling her back when she thinks she is on thin ice. Wadjda is a wonderfully confident and self aware character, but al-Mansour doesn’t allow her to become unrealistic or unconvincing. When two girls at school are caught up in what the headmistress believes to be a lesbian ‘scandal’, Wadjda doesn’t seize the opportunity to save the girls from ostracisation and punishment.

Throughout the film we learn of many the many restraints that Saudi women face, but we also learn of some chances that have started to bring around change – Wadjda’s mother has a friend who works at the hospital without a full veil, for example. Wadjda’s mother is, however, still very socially immobile. Wadjda’s grandmother is looking for a bride for her father as her mother almost died while giving birth to Wadjda and can no longer provide the son the family wants. When the father finally decides to marry someone else, she loses her much needed male guardian, which shows how reliant Saudi society makes women on the men who surround them. This is obviously also seen in the need for a driver – Wadjda’s mother has to take time off work because she can’t get herself there, so that even when women try to seek independence, something outside of their control still holds them back.

At school we see how the headmistress trains the girls to accept a second place in society, ushering them inside when they are in the eye line of a man, discouraging individuality and using veiling to bring troublesome pupils back into line.

This film covers so many different levels of Saudi society in such a beautiful, and interesting way. This film is easily one the best I have seen in a long time and is truly a masterpiece. – It is well balanced, believable and honest.