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The 70th Berlinale International Film Festival will be held from February 20 to March 1, 2020.
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A JIHAD FOR LOVE Opens Panorama Section

Sunday, February 10---------The Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival is recognized as the "cutting edge" program at the Berlinale, with films that embrace politics, sexuality and social upheaval. Longtime Panorama chief Wieland Speck has been a consistent curator at the Berlinale over the past 20 years, bringing his own sensibilities to the programming of what is, for me, the Festival's most consistent and uplifiting film showcase. To start things off this past weekend, the Panorama presented the international premiere of A JIHAD FOR LOVE, an engaging and eye-opening documentary on gay Muslims, that had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September.

In Toronto, I had the opportunity to interview the film's creative team and am reprinting it here. A JIHAD FOR LOVE serves as a kind of complimentary bookend to producer Sandi Dubowski's acclaimed TREMBLING BEFORE GOD, an exploration of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox Jewish community, that was a Sundance hit a few years ago. A JIHAD FOR LOVE will follow that earlier film's unique distribution roll-out, with a theatrical run by First Run Features that also includes community screenings at synagogues, mosques, churches, universities and even people's homes. This is the kind of intimate setting that allows for discussion of the film's engaging themes.

There are very few words in our contemporary culture that are as charged as the word "jihad". It has been used as a kind of talisman for conjuring up the fears of Western society for the resurgence of political, economic and ideological influence of the Muslim world. Indian-born Muslim director Parvez Sharma uses the word in the title of his debut documentary film in its more literal Arabic meaning. Rather than simply being equated with "holy war", Sharma unfolds a story of its literal meaning....."struggle" or "to strive in the path of God". This path is especially difficult for those in the Muslim world who are struggling with self-acceptance of themselves as gay men and lesbian women, in a society and religious culture that is hostile and uncomfortable with their mere presence.

A JIHAD FOR LOVE has a lot to teach us about love, acceptance and the struggle for human dignity for those who see themselves as both homosexual and Muslim, a combination so taboo that very little has even been documented on the subject. Traveling to a number of countries in the Middle East, South Africa, Asia and into the heart of Europe's immigrant communities, Sharma bravely enters these territories by illuminating multiple stories as diverse as the many worlds of Islam. 

In South Africa, we encounter a religious scholar, the imam Muhsin Hendricks, who faces condemnation when he publicly comes out of the closet. In Egypt, where homosexuality is outlawed, a young man named Mazen has to flee after being imprisoned and tortured following the well-publicized 2001 raid on Cairo’s secret gay community. Once in Paris, he befriends lesbians from other Muslim countries, and their bonds help to supplant the families left behind.

Where there is struggle, there is also hope. We find a Muslim mother in Turkey accepting her grown daughter’s lesbian partner. Four gay men from Iran seek asylum and a new life in Canada. Each subject in the film is, in their own way, fighting a kind of "holy war" of acceptance, from both their families and communities, and from within themselves. In this respect, the film parallels similar themes and issues explored within the Orthodox Jewish community that this film's producer Sandi Dubowski championed in his acclaimed 2001 documentary TREMBLING BEFORE GOD.

In a post-screening interview in Toronto with both the film's director and producer, Pervez Sharma stated that the goal of the project was "to create a feeling of empathy with the human condition" through the stories of his subjects and to "see all their struggles connected to the basic principle of love." The project took six years to realize and for the director to find "the correct kind of visual vocabularly to tell the story." He eventually worked with small, local camera crews, which allowed him to capture intimate interviews and moments as the characters talk about their personal histories, their struggles and hopes for the future.

For Sharma, it was important that the film be done from "a Muslim perspective, where those people in the film attempted to reconcile a deep religious faith with their innate feelings of sexuality and the objects of their affection." He also had to commune with his subjects in order to develop their trust, since their participation in the film could actually cause them physical or procedural harm. "I wanted to honestly depict their courage, their determination and also their self-questioning", Sharaf elaborated. "They all have something profound to say that I felt needed to be heard by both a Muslim and non-Muslim audience."

The director himself grew up in a more secular world in India, but remains "sympathetic to the struggle of accepting one's place in the world." He realizes that being born in India, where attitudes towards homosexuality are more accepting, has been a blessing, as compared to the literally life-threatening situations that many of the film's subjects face for being visible and vocal. However, the director does share a kindred spirit with those depicted in the film "in that we want to come out as Muslims while still feeling tied to our traditions".

For both director Sharma and producer Dubowski, the finishing of the film is just the beginning. The film received much praise and press at its world premiere screenings in Toronto, and secured a distribution deal with specialty distributor First Run Features, a company that knows how to generate awareness in both theatrical and non-theatrical screening venues. "For us, the film will work best to bring awareness and to stimulate discussion, both in the Muslim communities and in the non-Muslim communities", producer Sandi Dubowski added. "I had the most amazing experiences presenting my filim TREMBLING BEFORE GOD in community and religious forums.....it was an eye-opening experience for them and for me, and I feel it contributed to a greater understanding and acceptance."

In its depiction of a vibrant and committed community that is officially not sanctioned, the film is a powerful and effective first step in winning the kind of support and establishment of equal rights that gay and lesbians have achieved (in measured degree) in the West. "This is a long process, and for us needs to be a Muslim process", director Sharma concluded. "But it is a worthwhile one for myself as an artist, as a gay man, a Muslim, and as a human being."

Sandy Mandelberger, Berlin FF Dailies Editor

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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