There is a dramatic difference between A Jihad For Love -- Parvez Sharma's evocative portrayal of the lives of gay Muslims -- and, say, For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary about Christianity and homosexuality we reviewed recently.
In the case of fundamentalist Christianity, the otherwise religiously observant gay "sinners" were making a case for acceptance, respect, a simple cessation of hatred and verbal persecution, that sort of thing.
In the Muslim world, their wish-dreams are a little more pragmatic. In many cases in A Jihad For Love, the subjects would simply like to not be flogged, imprisoned or executed for their sexual orientation.
If nothing else, Sharma's sprawling and affecting movie does put the big lie to buffoonish Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim that there is no homosexuality in his country. Iran -- where Amir, one of the movie's interviewees, is badly lashed for the crime of being found at a "suspect" disco -- is but one whistle-stop in a movie that starts and ends in South Africa (with a profile of an "out" Imam), with stops in Turkey, Egypt, India, France and Canada (eventual home to Arsham and Payam, applicants for UN refugee status).
The Imam, Muhsin Hendricks -- who loses his position in his Mosque as he "outs" himself -- is the most interesting character, looking for and finding opportunities to debate Koran scholars on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and others that form the basis of homosexuality's "haram" (forbidden) status. Needless to say, he hits a brick wall in nearly every case.
The other stories tie together strangely neatly. Amir escapes to Turkey where he hooks up with fellow refugees Arsham, Payam and Mojtaba. Mazen, an Egyptian who's been beaten and imprisoned, flees to France, where he forms a family of sorts with Egyptian lesbians Maryam and Maha (victims of "female circumcision," an issue apart from their sexuality).
The pace of Jihad For Love's movement from place to place is impressive, but the speed at which it throws these stories at us prevents us from getting to know the characters too deeply (an exception: a heartbreaking moment between Muhsin and his daughters in a car, where he attempts to joke about being put to death, a scene capped by his older daughter reaching forward, hugging him and promising "I won't let them kill you.")
Both Jihad For Love and For the Bible Tells Me So leave me puzzled by the murderous furiousness this particular sin arouses in some. Do they stone people for "coveting?" That, at least, is part of the Ten Commandments, and by inference a "worse" sin.
But adherents may have a point when they say "you know what is allowed and not allowed in this religion. If you want to be gay, don't be a part of it."
The problem is, in both movies, many of the subjects can't simply leave their religion behind, even as it's used as a cudgel against them. In A Jihad For Love, in particular, the subjects continue to pray towards Mecca, fast at Ramadan, feast at Eid. They ask Allah why he made them this way. They are dutifully torn by the guilt their religion insists they experience.
More than the question of whether the mainstream religions can ever accept homosexuality, Jihad For Love shines a light on religious devotion, a powerful thing for some, even in the face of persecution and death.
(This film is rated 14-A)
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