Islam and homosexuality are rarely addressed in the same film. So when Indian director Parvez Sharma made "A Jihad for Love," a documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims, he wasn't terribly surprised to find himself embroiled in controversy. The film, which includes interviews with Muslim homosexuals from 12 countries, features an appearance by a gay imam from South Africa, where the Muslim Judicial Council issued a religious decree forbidding Muslims to see it. But when it screens this week at the Berlin International Film Festival, "A Jihad for Love" will no doubt receive a much warmer reception. It promises, says Sharma, "to engage European audiences with Islam in ways they did not even think were possible."
It's a goal clearly in vogue at this year's Berlinale, where fully a dozen films tackle complex and previously unexplored aspects of Muslim life. In "The Song of Sparrows," the Oscar-nominated Iranian director Majid Majidi tells the story of a modern-day Iranian family that moves from the suburbs of Tehran to the city, where the father falls upon hard times. Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss's documentary "Full Battle Rattle" focuses on the Iraqi-Americans who "play" Iraqis in the U.S. Army's Iraq simulation program in the Mojave Desert, contrasting the characters they play with their real-life stories of living in exile in America. These films come at a time when mistrust of Muslims remains high in Europe, and harsh stereotypes persist in the face of concerns over immigration, terrorist bombings and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The films certainly don't shy away from the taboo. "The Aquarium," by Yousry Nasrallah, hints at the dangerous strain of Islam lurking around the edges of middle-class, educated Egyptian society. And "3 Women," by Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat ("Women's Prison"), tells the story of three generations of strong-willed Iranian women, each in search of meaning and liberation. Döndü Kilic's documentary "The Other Side of Istanbul" explores discrimination in Turkey's capital from the perspective of a gay man whose family has accepted his homosexuality, challenging traditional Islamic views. And Tanaz Eshaghian's documentary "Be Like Others" boldly examines the ramifications of undergoing a sex change in Iran.
Some of the most compelling offerings come from American and European filmmakers seeking to portray Muslims as individuals who are also confronting the complexities of modern life. In the documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi follow a group of young Iraqi musicians fighting to keep their band, their dreams and their sanity intact as their country disintegrates. The youths are cosmopolitan and fluent in English, driving home "how little [Westerners] know about the Iraqi people," says Alvi. Another war-based documentary, "S.O.P. Standard Operating Procedure," by Oscar winner Errol Morris ("The Fog of War"), unravels the human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison.
Perhaps the most in-depth Western portrait of Islam is French director Emmanuelle Demoris's "Mafrouza/Heart," about life in a shantytown of Alexandria, Egypt. Demoris interviews residents of this impoverished Muslim community and finds not angry extremists but shopkeepers joking about the local imam who doesn't pray enough, unveiled women dancing sensuously in the streets and residents boycotting services at a local mosque taken over by extremists.
Making movies with Islamic themes or characters can be dangerous work. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed for making "Submission." Benjamin Gilmour's debut feature, "Son of a Lion," takes place in the lawless North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, where men "carry around AK-47s like umbrellas," says the Australian director. Gilmour, 32, had to grow a full beard and don the traditional salwar kameez to win the trust of a local Pashtun clan, who protected him from Taliban operatives so he could film his story about a son's struggle to break away from the violent world of his ex-fighter father. Gilmour says he hopes the film "humanizes the Pashtun people, who are too readily placed in the terrorist basket." Judging from this year's crop of Berlinale films, the only basket suitable for Muslims is the one labeled "humanity."