Islamic tales of forbidden love, lovers

produced by Sandi Simcha Dubowski, we meet Mazen, a 20-something Egyptian man who has fled Cairo for Paris to avoid the three-year prison sentence authorities want to impose on him because he is gay.

“I was in jail a year before my trial,” Mazen says as he watches a video recording of the judicial proceedings where he and 51 other men were convicted of crimes related to their sexuality. “And I was raped while I was in prison. I couldn’t go back.”

After Mazen is granted refugee status by the French government, he is able to rent an apartment and begin to cobble together a life for himself. Soon after he moves into his new home, he calls his mother in Egypt to share his bittersweet news with her.

“There is no god but God,” we hear the woman say at the end of their tearful telephone conversation.

“And Muhammad is His Prophet,” her son replies.

That brief exchange captures Sharma’s intention in making “A Jihad for Love” — which will screen on July 17 as the documentary centerpiece at Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, and during the first week of August at Laemmle’s Sunset 5.

“When we started cutting ‘ Jihad,’ the editor asked me, ‘ Is this a film about Islam or homosexuality?'” said Sharma, a respected print and broadcast journalist in his native India and, more recently, a producer at Democracy Now! in the United States.

“Together we decided to edit the film to be about Islam,” he said, “which means the gay and lesbian characters in the film are really coming out as Muslim.”

The intense religiosity of the film’s characters was transformative for Sharma, who said that while at the beginning of the project he felt a lot of anger — toward conservative Muslims who openly say they want to kill their homosexual brothers and sisters and toward the conflation of Islam and terrorism in most mainstream Western media outlets. He acquired a deeper respect for his religion by the end of the project.

And that religious intensity resonated with Dubowski, whose 2001 documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” examined the struggle between spirituality and sexual identity among gay and lesbian Jews in Orthodox communities.

“Jews have very recent memories of being refugees — of fleeing persecution and crossing borders,” Dubowski said. “But that’s what’s happening right now for gay Muslims. Michelle, one of the Orthodox women in ‘ Trembling,’ said to me after she saw ‘ Jihad,’ ‘ I had it bad, but I never had to flee my country.'”

Dubowski met Sharma in 2002 at an interfaith panel in Washington, D.C., and quickly saw their conversation evolve into a collaboration that was both personal and professional.

“Parvez’s idea for the film was rooted in my struggle, as well,” Dubowski said. “Being gay but not being a secular Jew presents me with a distinct set of challenges. By the end of the year, I had gone from playing the role of advice-giver to being the producer for the film.”

Though “Jihad” has only been screening for seven months, the geographically diverse profile of the film’s audiences — including festival dates and panel discussions in India, South Africa, Canada, Europe, Turkey, Mexico and the United States — and the feedback Dubowski has received so far suggest that “Jihad” could have the same impact in the Muslim world that “Trembling” had in Jewish communities.

“I’m in awe of the movement that ‘ Trembling’ sparked,” Dubowski said. “It led to policy change in Conservative Judaism, which now ordains gay and lesbian rabbis and recognizes same-sex marriages, and made sexuality a legitimate issue for public discussion in the Orthodox community. That kind of change is just beginning to happen with ‘ Jihad.'”

Dubowski cites as an example of that change an encounter he had with an Iranian woman after a screening of “Jihad” in Toronto.

“She told me she came to see the film with her fist clinched,” because she feared the documentary would be just another Western misrepresentation of Islam, Dubowski said. “And when she spoke to me afterward, she said her hand and her heart were open.”

Five Jewish films at Outfest

“A Jihad for Love” is a longer version of a 20-minute segment called, “In the Name of Allah,” that Parvez Sharma first screened at Outfest in 2002.

It is one of five feature-length titles screening during Outfest’s week of Jewish programming — the others are “Citizen Nawi,” a documentary that examines the social activism of a gay Israeli who advocates for the rights of Palestinian farmers; “Antarctica,” a sexy dramedy that depicts the lives and loves of a group of gay men and lesbians in Tel Aviv; “Seeds of Summer,” director Hen Lasker’s documentary of her relationship with a woman she met while serving in the Israel Defense Forces; and “The Secrets,” a haunting and lyrical drama that explores the place of women and sexuality in Orthodox Judaism.

The screenings of Jewish films at Outfest are part of a first-ever collaboration organized by JQ International and include Congregation Kol Ami, Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.