At this year's Istanbul International Film Festival, one of the major attractions is A Jihad for Love, a documentary about a taboo subject: homosexuality in Islamic countries. Homosexuality is strictly banned in most interpretations of the Koran. This is the first time the film is being screened in a Muslim country. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from the festival.
The ending of A Jihad for Love, was greeted with rapturous applause from a packed audience. The film, which Indian Muslim director Pervez Sharma filmed in 12 countries and took six years to make, is an intimate look at the lives of 12 gay Muslim men and women.
Much of the material was filmed in secret in Muslim countries that ban homosexuality. But Sharma says the film is as much about the Muslim faith as it is about homosexuality.
"The world's first film, about Islam and homosexuality, because what is central to this film is Islam. The Koran is central to this film. I always say that I made this film with a Muslim camera, and if I had been a white Western filmmaker, as opposed to a gay Muslim filmmaker, I don't think I would been able to make this film, or get the kind of access that I did into these communities, that had been surrounded by silence." said Sharma.
Sharma argues the film is not intended as an attack on Islam, but rather a defense of it. He says the movie is aimed as much at Western audiences as at Muslims, with the goal of challenging stereotypes about the Islamic faith, which exist in the post-September 11 world.
"It shows people, Islam is not a problematic monolith, but that is lived in very diverse ways, in different countries, that it is living religion. It is the world's fastest growing religion, for a reason, and it certainly enables the discourse about Islam to shift. It takes it away from violence and takes it towards love, and that is why I called the film a Jihad for Love," added Sharma.
While homosexuality is legal in Muslim-majority Turkey, it remains a taboo subject for many. This member of the audience appreciated that the wall of silence was broken.
Warm responses came as a major relief to the filmmakers. The festival flew in several people who were featured in the documentary, including Egyptian-born Mazen, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Paris, because he is homosexual. He said he had concerns about attending the Istanbul festival.
"I was afraid when I came to Turkey, I was nervous, when I arrived to audience for the question and answer. I was shaking. I did not know from where I will get the questions and what they will be, but I saw the people , I saw them applauding me, applauding everybody in the film. I said phew, I was very happy," said Mazen.
The response was not all positive. Several of Turkey's Islamic newspapers condemned the film, calling it an attack on the Islamic faith. According to orthodox interpretations of the Koran, homosexuality is strictly forbidden.
Festival organizers placed security guards in the audience during the screening and the question-and-answer period after the film.
Hostility toward the film is nothing new, according to A Jihad for Love producer Sandi Dubowski. That is why he says its screening in Istanbul was so important.
"It is groundbreaking because we have been submitting to film festivals in the Arab world and we've been rejected," he said. "So it is quite a landmark for us to be here. We are doing a tour to Indonesia but it is kind of ironic because we have been just banned in Singapore."
The film and its filmmakers will tour the world for the next couple of years. Screenings are planned in India and Indonesia. The filmmakers hope the Arab world will eventually open its doors and allow A Jihad for Love to be seen.