A Jihad for Love - Traitor

Written by on September 5th, 2008

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Two of the lucky — and identifiable — ones

In the documentary A Jihad for Love, a South African Muslim named Muhsin Hendricks is shown being profiled on a radio show, coming clean to listeners about his unorthodox views and radical lifestyle. Listeners respond by phoning in vitriol: “We should definitely bring back the death sentence for this guy,” says one. “It’s unacceptable. He’s bringing down the name of Islam.”

You might imagine Hendricks is a terrorist, or at least a sympathizer. Nope: He’s gay.

Before he came out, Hendricks was a Cape Town imam raised in a strict Islamic home. When he was a teenager, he knew that the Koran seemed to forbid homosexuality; the book’s teachings about Sodom and Gomorrah called for such people to be stoned to death.

So Hendricks prayed for his temptations to be taken away. He married and had kids. But when a separation from a close male friend left him grieving, Hendricks revealed his true feelings to his wife and set out to change the thinking that one cannot be both gay and a devout Muslim.

Writer-director Parvez Sharma’s debut feature documentary is a needed introduction to an issue that’s quietly disrupted the Muslim community while more internationally relevant problems of suicide bombers and profiling have been bullhorned.

Besides Hendricks, several gay and lesbians are profiled, capturing Muslims from Cairo to Paris to Turkey. Most have reached the point where they’re self-accepting; others, such as a Moroccan Arab woman named Maryam, still believe that their sexuality is a sin. Nearly all talk of begging Allah to make them “normal.” Maha, Maryam’s girlfriend, recalls praying to either “get rid of this or die.”

Though some of Sharma’s subjects live in countries that do not punish homosexual acts, many still refuse to be fully identified onscreen for fear of retribution from their families or exile from their mosque. That caution is understandable, but it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing: Sharma mainly blurs faces, though he’ll also film people from behind or let us see one eye.

Mazen, an Egyptian man who was arrested at a gay club and imprisoned in 2001, tells the bulk of his story while we look at the back of his head. Three years later he’s in Paris, watching footage of the man responsible for the raid. “Today I’m ready to reveal my face,” Mazen says and slowly turns for Sharma to capture his profile. It should be a dramatic moment, but it just feels unnecessarily staged.

The documentary’s bigger failing is its repetitiveness. The Koran addresses homosexuality only in a passage about Sodom and Gomorrah, and that’s the teaching every person portrayed here—and there are approximately a dozen of them—is butting his or her head against. Hendricks brings the most insight to the subject, and it’s heartening when another scholar agrees to meet with him to discuss the issue.

But while Hendricks lays out a solid argument that the punishment called for in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was in response to rape and brutality, not same-sex attraction, the scholar has a quick answer: “You are just playing with words,” he says. “No person can make an interpretation to suit his desires, or her desires, when you have clear-cut verses.”

With each familiar story, you wish Sharma dug a little deeper into the issue. Still, his message conveys. You ache for the outcasts and semi-closeted and cheer for couples such as Ferda and Kiymet, who openly show affection even while in front of a mosque. Especially touching is one man’s trip to Canada, where he seeks asylum. “Today is my new birthday,” he says upon his arrival.

Ultimately, too, this documentary’s message is one that is all too universal, relating to many people whose religion pronounces their lifestyle a sin. Hendricks may parse the Koran’s specifics, but a lesbian named Sana argues the case for acceptance best: “My loving a woman caused no harm.”

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The face of a terrorist? Well, like they say, it’s complicated.

The word “jihad,” which means “struggle,” may have been correctly applied in Sharma’s documentary. But Traitor uses the connotation that the world is unfortunately more familiar with: “Jihad” still refers to a struggle but one fueled by extremism and violence.

This political thriller fleshes out a story by Steve Martin—yes, the wild ’n’ crazy one—about the pursuit of a former U.S. Special Operations officer and lifelong Muslim who has gone to the dark side, selling explosives to terrorists and committing violent acts himself. Samir (Don Cheadle) lived in Sudan until he witnessed his father killed in a car bombing.

He and his mother moved to Chicago when Samir was 12, but stints in the military took him all over the world, eventually leading him to where we meet him as an adult: Yemen, negotiating a detonator sale when FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), Max Archer (Neal McDonough), and what seems like a small militia open fire. Samir and one of the clients, Omar (Said Taghmaoui), are imprisoned.

In prison, Samir proves to be both sinner and saint. He literally feeds the hungry, standing up to the jailyard kingpin who’d rather let another convict starve. But he’s a tight-lipped smartass to Clayton and Archer, not seeming to care that his chances of freedom will be slim without their help.

Omar initially doesn’t trust Samir but gradually accepts that he’s a “brother” and wants to help the Islamic fight against America. “I only wish to serve [Allah’s] will,” Samir tells him, even if it means killing innocents.

Wait, this is Don Cheadle?

Given the violence and trauma he experienced as a child, it’s easy to imagine the devout Samir following a vengeful path. But for the first half of Traitor, Cheadle’s character seems more akin to Clayton’s initial impression: “opportunistic, perhaps, but not a fanatic.”

When Samir and Omar escape prison and begin plotting attacks, though, Samir switches from instructor to participant, first helping to kill eight people by planting bombs at the American consulate in Nice. He balks when he thinks a suicide bomber is too young and experienced, insisting each “mission” be carried out correctly.

However, “it’s complicated,” as Samir tells a former girlfriend during a brief stop in Chicago. (With characters blowing up stuff in one country and walking the streets of another two shakes later, Traitor feels like a heavily armored Amazing Race.) All the complications added by screenwriter-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff make this 114-minute chase a bit of a slog.

But even viewers burned out on talk about politics and war will be queasily engrossed by conversations inside Samir’s cell, especially when one of the leaders explains that “[People] should accept that each American is responsible for its government’s crimes.” The tendrils and intricate planning of such an organization give a fresh perspective of the FBI’s job, suggesting that hunting down those intent on murder and destruction isn’t so a simple task. And just when you start to get bored, a giant d’oh!-worthy plot turn makes things exciting again.

As always, Cheadle’s performance is a fine one: His character’s ambivalence about his actions is readable on his face only when it’s necessary to clue viewers in to the layers of the story. Pearce, playing another by-the-book good-guy but with a Southern-boy lilt, is just as effective but less irritating here than he was in, say, L.A. Confidential. (Wasted, however, is Jeff Daniels, in a crucial-but-tiny role that would have been better served by a no-name.)

Nachmanoff’s worst sins are an abundance of chess metaphors, an unsteady camera that’s not quite Bourne–like but still somewhat nauseating, and tiresome talk of Samir’s religiousness, which culminates in a truly ridiculous parting shot. It may be more appropriate to the Cheadle we’re used to, but dirtying him up didn’t necessarily require later polishing him to a holy gleam.

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