The Sheik and I
Directed by Caveh Zahedi
In this documentary about making a movie about a making a movie, Carroll Gardens director Zahedi plays the archetypal hipster, the Ugliest American, during a trip abroad to the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah commissions him to produce a film for its upcoming biennial with three restrictions: no mocking the Prophet, no frontal nudity, and no mocking the Sheik of Sharjah. Zahedi can't get over that last one, so he proceeds to produce a film that mocks Sharjah and its Sheik, a documentary about his and his crew's attempt to film a generic action movie, cast with non-professional locals, that criticizes the emirate's immigration policies. In its depiction of an Iranian (well, Iranian-American) confronting free-speech issues in the Middle East, the movie recalls Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, this year's subversive pseudo-documentary about that director's house arrest over free-speech issues. But here the stakes are much, much lower: Zahedi's a snotty American artist who wants to tease a powerful yet obscure sheik just to prove he can. His passport protects him from serious consequences.
It's also reminiscent of Roger & Me (the title seems like an obvious reference), just without the layoffs or economic devastation. Injustice, in the form of oppression, lurks in Sharjah, but Zahedi seems offended only by how it applies to him: he's irate that this unseen power won't indulge his every artistic whim. He's an American coddled by constitutional protections—and a narcissist. "It's the thing I hate most in the world, is people who try to get in the way of my films," he says, "because my films are the most important thing to me." I hated Zahedi and this movie for most of its running time, seething in my seat at his callous disrespect, his obnoxiousness, the way he seemed to be putting local people's lives and livelihoods at risk for some stupid personal obsession. But by the end I began to believe Zahedi was up to something cleverer: that he consciously plays up American stereotypes to tear down those about Middle Easterners—he makes himself look bad to make the people in Sharjah look even cooler. Still—no one could pretend to be that unlikable.
Opens December 7