Sandi DuBowski’s new project is a kind of cinematic thumb in the eye to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president famously announced last year while speaking at Columbia University that there are no gays in Iran. A new documentary, “A Jihad for Love,” about the struggles of gay Muslims from Egypt to India, in South Africa and yes, in Iran, shows a different story.
Amir is a young man charged with crimes of “sexual preference and sexual contact,” in Iran. He was flogged with 100 lashes and then fled to Turkey. The film shows him with three other Iranian young men in Istanbul, all of who escaped from their home country, where they were prosecuted for being gay.
“A Jihad for Love,” is produced by DuBowski, whose earlier film, “Trembling Before G-d” examined the lives of gay Orthodox Jews. The new documentary was directed by Parvez Sharma, an openly gay man from India, and filmed in a dozen countries and nine languages. The film, which since September has premiered in 15 countries and won five awards, opened locally this week at the IFC Center in the West Village. A panel discussion featuring two rabbis, a bishop, a pastor and an imam — all of them openly gay — will be held at the theater on May 27.
The word jihad, generally understood as a “holy war,” also has a more intimate meaning according to the film, as a “personal struggle.”
Traveling around the world and the U.S. to premiere the new film in front of groups of Muslim viewers, has he gotten any heat for being Jewish?
“We feared it more than it’s happened,” DuBowski said. “I have not experienced any full-blown attack on me as a Jew. There are many more curious conversations. In India, people said, ‘Oh you’re Jewish, you’re the people who don’t believe in God, right?’ They had absolutely no experience with Jews.”
For now, “Jihad” will not play in Israel. “Parvez and I have different positions around Israel and Palestine. We have to play the film in Palestine before Israel, and also want to ensure that the film gains legitimacy in the Muslim and Arab world,” DuBowski said.
DuBowski is hoping that this film makes the same kind of impact that “Trembling” has since being released in 2001.
“The change from ‘Trembling’ has been quite enormous. Eight million people have seen the film worldwide,” said DuBowski, through television broadcasts in the U.S. (on cable), in Israel, the United Kingdom, Latin America, Australia, Poland and in Western Europe, among other places.
At least 18 Orthodox synagogues screened “Trembling,” he said. “I have countless stories of people who rejected their children, saw the film and then started speaking to their children again,” he said. “I’ve seen rabbis who thought homosexuality was an abomination and now say they don’t know or are much more inclusive.”
Is such change possible in the Muslim world? The filmmakers have formed an international Muslim dialogue project to foster it.
“It’s out in the world for just seven months, and we’ve met a number of Muslim gay refugees for whom this film is a lifeline,” he said. “We hope that the same way ‘Trembling’ put a human face on what had only been a pasuk [passage] in the Torah, that ‘Jihad’ puts a human face on for what has for many until now been an abomination in the Koran.”
“I’m committed to films being catalysts for change, and that work takes a long time.”