SXSW: Caveh Zahedi Discusses His Controversial The Sheik and I

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03/15/2012 4:02 PM |


In The Sheik and I, the Carroll Gardens-based filmmaker Caveh Zahedi goes to the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah, on commission to make a “subversive” film for the Sharjah Biennial.

The film documents the process of making this film-bouncing jokily irreverent ideas off his crew, recruiting his reluctant Arab minders to play versions of themselves in a goofily thriller, and meeting more and more resistance from people speaking for, or in deference to, the always absent Sheik and absolute ruler of Sharjah. Like Eve, Zahedi pushes up against taboos mostly to find out what they even are, and discovers things about immigrant labor in wealthy Arab countries, the suspicion of representational art among many Muslims, and polite terror of authority. That film was not shown in the Biennial: as The Sheik and I also documents, he received an order to destroy all copies of the film or risk a blasphemy trial and possibly violent consequences for his local crew, and is only showing the film publicly in the West following a legal agreement with the Sheik’s lawyers, which guaranteed American jurisdiction in the event of any reprisals.

At the film’s world premiere screening on Sunday night, Zahedi, still being filmed by his crew, fielded questions from a several furious audience members: he was told that he was being insensitive to Arab culture; that he was exploiting his powerless local crew and leaving him to deal with the consequences (his lawyer, in attendance, took particular offense to that suggestion), and that, though he may naively think otherwise, he was putting his wife and son (also in the audience) at risk of revenge killing by inflamed “radical Arabs.”

Of course, all these are criticisms that Zahedi invites, in his way: throughout his career, his reflexive, radically open films have included his own commentary on the process, and he’s always careful to put his motivations and methods in play, allowing our questions, and maybe reservations, about his process and intentions to be a part of the film. I wanted to ask Zahedi more about the audience response and his storytelling strategies, so I emailed him a few questions after the film’s second screening.

First of all, how did your second Q&A compare to the first?
The second Q & A was much more civilized. Not sure why.

To what extent was the audience response expected (or not)?
I expected the audience to be divided but I wasn’t prepared for the virulence of the response. I’d done a few test screenings and had encountered angry reactions before, but I had tried to address at least some of those concerns and I was under the impression that I had, at least in part, succeeded.

Were you conscious that, by being so open about the project’s potential risks, and your own intentions and reservations about the process, you might open yourself up to the kinds of criticisms you received?
Yes, but not being open about the project’s potential risks would have most likely opened me up to even harsher criticisms.

In your previous films, you’ve been pretty rigorous about leaving room for the viewer to, potentially, question your motivations in making the film. You do the same here, but it’s maybe the first time you’ve made a film that’s addressed volatile political subjects. Would you, or did you, ever consider cutting out stuff-your self-doubt, frankness about your less than complete knowledge, transparent method and occasionally silly storytelling devices, reservations about the use you make of your crew and others-in order to make yourself a more forceful or convincing messenger for a political critique?
I never considered cutting out stuff unless I could be persuaded that the film would be even better if I cut something out. Whatever personal inadequacies I might have, I’m fairly uncompromising where what I would call artistic integrity is concerned. The bottom line for me is does a particular scene make the film better or worse?

The political critique in my work goes hand in hand with the personal critique. The two are inextricably intertwined. To leave out the self-critique or the human dimension would be to compromise the political point of view that my work expresses, which is that the personal is always already political and that the transformation of how we perceive and interact with each other is the only way to create lasting change.

Aside from length, what’s changed about the film since the last time you’ve screened it? How do you anticipate it changing in the future?
As far as I’m concerned, the film is still a work-in-progress. Every time I watch it with an audience, I have ideas for how to make it better. I’ll keep tweaking it until I can’t think of anything else that I want to change. Right now, I’m considering using some of the Q and A discussion in the movie.

Given the original parameters of the film, I’m curious if you think of your previous films as having been “subversive,” and in what ways.
I think of all my films as “subversive.” They subvert traditional story-telling paradigms, what viewers expect of a film, and social conventions. Being “subversive” is my favorite thing in the world.