Westerners 'should stop making films about Islam'

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The Independent Online

Western documentary makers should think twice about making films about Islam because they do not understand the issues as well as their Muslim counterparts, a leading Muslim film-maker has said.

Parvez Sharma, whose documentary about what it means to be gay and Muslim had its European premiere at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival last night, said Western non-Muslim film makers were jumping on the "Islamic bandwagon".

Sharma added: "Post 11 September, [Islam] is suddenly very hot", and he cited the "plane-loads" of documentary makers who flew from New York to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"For many documentary film-makers there's very little understanding of the complexities. Everyone has been jumping on the Islamic bandwagon. Very few of those films do justice [to Islam]. They suffer from a lack of comprehension. There's this need to cash in on the Islamic theme."

Sharma, whose documentary, A Jihad For Love includes emotional interviews with gay Muslims from around the world, torn between their homosexuality and their faith, said there was a "paucity" of Muslim film-makers and called on Islamic documentary producers to make their own voices heard to combat Islamaphobia. His Jihad, filmed over six years, reveals the often shocking treatment meted out to homosexuals in Islamic states such as Iran, where one of the men featured was flogged for attending a gay party, and in Egypt, where another interviewee was thrown into prison, where he was raped, then fled to France.

For Sharma, a gay Muslim from the north of India who now lives in the US, making the film was an intensely personal experience. "It was very important for me as a Muslim film-maker not to deal with Islam as a problematic monolith, which is how many people in the west see Islam," he said.

"I always knew Islam was diverse. It was important for me to present the diversity of the religion. I'm gay and Muslim, so it was an intensely personal film. So many films about Islam are mediated through Western eyes. It's really important for me as a Muslim to take up a Muslim camera. So few of us have taken responsibility to change the discussions about our own religion.

"It's critical to have Muslim voices in the arts, in documentary film-making, to tell the stories of Muslims as they see it. This climate requires Muslim film- makers to step up and tell stories."

The British film-maker Ruhi Hamid, who has been making documentaries for 12 years, identified herself as a Muslim on screen for the first time in her latest documentary, Inside A Sharia Court, set in Nigeria. She said: "There's been a kneejerk reaction over Islam. Western film-makers go for the obvious things: there's an obsession with women in the veil and with angry young jihadi men. The lives are much more complex than that."

The British film-maker, Ivan O'Mahoney, who made Baghdad High, a documentary also showing at Sheffield, in which four young students from an Iraqi boys' school film their own lives amid sectarian violence, said: "I thought of Iraq as a country where everybody to a certain degree had been radicalised. But with these kids we see almost the opposite. The more violence around, the more they tried to be normal teenagers. That filled me with hope."