Caveh Zahedi’s documentary The Sheik and I, about his efforts to circumvent censorship while making a movie in the United Arab Emirates, opened on Friday amid controversy: a week ago, the director released online an eight-minute video called “I Was Blacklisted by Thom Powers,” who is a powerful programmer of documentaries. Zahedi, who lives in Carroll Gardens, had sent Powers his film, looking for feedback, and Powers had a reaction similar to mine: “I… found it deeply troubling for its breach of filmmaking ethics and reckless behavior toward people who put their faith in you,” Powers wrote in an email to Zahedi. “The film is framed as championing artistic freedom, but rather than bearing the brunt of risk yourself, you put the greater risk on others—including minors—who could risk deportation, loss of livelihood and potentially worse.”
Powers was seriously upset about the movie and its potential to cause harm, so much so that he wrote an email to the programmer of South by Southwest, where the film was scheduled to screen (Powers had asked Zahedi to withdraw it). “I… was appalled and frightened by what I saw,” he wrote. “I think you’ve put yourself in a very difficult position by programming it.” And that’s not all: Powers then wrote to several film journalists, asking them to consider “the people [Zahedi] took advantage of during filming” when writing about the film.
Powers clearly overstepped, and the reaction toward him in comments-sections has been critical. But it seems to me like he had genuine concern for the safety of the film’s participants (one of whom is a colleague of Powers); if I had any power in the filmmaking community, I too might have tried to do something to try to help them, or at least mitigate the fallout. This wasn’t personal (Powers has chosen an earlier Zahedi film for SundanceNOW’s Doc Club next year), nor a mere aesthetic disagreement. As Powers saw it, there were lives and livelihoods at stake—real-world consequences for people who didn’t ask for them.
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