Isha opens with the sight of a young, half-naked man leaving his male lover in bed. Within seconds, the film cuts to the same man worshipping on a prayer mat with the sound of religious chanting all around. In less than a minute, the problems that trouble the protagonist of this short — and countless other queer people around the world — immediately become apparent.
Shot on location in London and Dorset, the latest short from writer/director Christopher Manning explores the double life led by a gay Romanian Muslim in the UK. Rahmi (Horia Săvescu) lies to his family, pretending that he’s working night shifts at a local fast food restaurant, but he’s actually dating an unnamed English guy (Dario Coates) in secret.
Not only does Rahmi have to somehow reconcile his desires with his religious beliefs, but he also has to contend with homophobic jokes from his younger brother Cemil (Lino Facioli) and pressure from his mother (Maia Morgenstern) to open up more: “Sometimes I lie here all night wondering about your other life, trying to imagine what’s it like…”
Rather than just focus on the struggles that religious gay men face keeping their love life a secret, Manning’s script also flips things around, taking time to consider what it’s like for family members to be shut out of someone’s private life. Morgenstern portrays this “terrible feeling” all too well, proving once again why she’s so respected by critics within the world of Romanian theatre and film.
Fortunately, Isha opens up to the audience far more than Rahmi does to his family in the scenes where he and his lover share a bed together. Without being overly explicit, Manning uses intense close-ups to convey the passion that these two men share for each other before they settle down to talk about their future plans.
Whether the central pair are connecting physically or emotionally, the script is beautifully honest and strives for authenticity throughout. Without spoiling the ending, it’s commendable that Manning and his team don’t go down the obvious path here, something which is particularly important given how few films explore this subject matter with respect.
Rahmi states at one point that “I have the right to live my life,” and clearly there’s a need for this powerful message to be heard. After all, production was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that spoke to people before the film was even released.
It wasn’t so long ago that gay Muslim director Parvez Sharma helmed A Jihad For Love back in 2007, which became the first film ever made about the relationship between Islam and homosexuality. For this incredible honor, Sharma received a horrifying number of death threats.
Although some progress has been made since, it’s worth bearing in mind that just last year, Lebanon finally became the first Arab country to celebrate a gay Pride festival, only to then see it canceled in 2018 after the organizer was detained by police. In Arab countries like Lebanon, LGBTQ love is still criminalized, proving that Islam and homosexuality are still deemed by many as incompatible.
Of course, the experiences of gay Muslim men who live in the east or west can differ radically in a number of ways, but the complications that arise from the intersection of their religion and sexual orientation can occur nonetheless, wherever people might live.
The issue is far from clear-cut, so it’s particularly commendable that Manning and his crew tackle these problems head-on in Isha. With a running time of just 14 minutes, this powerful short could never even begin to answer the many questions that this ongoing conflict raises on both an individual and societal basis.
Perhaps it doesn’t have to, though. Instead, Isha can help kick-start a dialogue about LGBTQ people who are religious, helping them reconcile any conflict they may suffer while also educating those who would preach said religion and intolerance in the same breath.