SXSW 2012: Caveh Zahedi Riles a Government (and an Audience) with ‘The Sheik and I’

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Caveh Zahedi's The Sheik and I

Caveh Zahedi's The Sheik and I

Sunday night’s premiere of Caveh Zahedi’s new documentary, The Sheik and I, may well end up being the most memorable Q&A of this year’s SXSW.

With The Sheik and I, Zahedi continues his ongoing filmic fascination with himself (see In the Bathtub of the World, a result of filming himself for one minute a day for a year, and I Am A Sex Addict, a fourth-wall-breaking mea culpa in which he earns a “Persian Woody Allen” label).

This time, Zahedi is commissioned by an Arab fan to create a work of subversive art for the Middle Eastern Biennial for the Sheik of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. But could the real motivation for the piece be the emirate’s attempt to appear it is modernizing, like its neighbor Abu Dhabi? The choice of Zahedi, a true subversive, is at once an obvious choice but also a terrible one.

In one of the film’s funnier moments — and one that comes back to haunt him — Zahedi is told the three rules to which he must abide, the most important being not to make fun of the Sheik, Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi. It’s quickly made apparent that things are not going to go smoothly (see Caveh’s previous films) when he asks if he can make a little bit of fun and the art foundation that has commissioned him is revealed to be little more than a smokescreen.

Zahedi subsequently brings his wife and toddler to the Middle East to begin the project. Local non-actors are hired, including a number of children, whose blasphemous dancing in the film seems to trigger the ire of the Sharjah Art Foundation.

“I went to there [to the Emirates] and filmed what happened,” Zahedi told me. “I don’t think all my behavior is admirable. I don’t think all their behavior was admirable. We’re all human and trying to find our way in a very complicated and messy situation.”

What makes it into the film is less about Zahedi’s original piece, titled Plot for a Biennial, but the process of how things fell apart.

Because people from the Art Foundation and others who became close to the filmmaker indicated that the lives of those non-actors were in danger, Zahedi hired a lawyer who created contract between our government and theirs that states no harm should come to those people. But how effective is that contract in practice? The clip below, from the premiere’s contentious post-screening Q&A, highlights that debate.

Zahedi understands and owns the complexities of his film. In the end he believes the disapproval should be saved for the bullies of the world and not for those who shed light on them. The criticism and attempts to shut down Zahedi’s film are only growing, but the artist refuses to back down.

“I’m getting blamed for pointing out that the government there is problematic and that they don’t have rights,” Zahedi said. “Like you’re supposed to enable that? As an artist I’m not supposed to rock the boat?”

“Art always rocks the boat. That’s what art is supposed to.”

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Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.
  • J. Quincy

    I saw the film at sxsw. Definitely worth seeing. My struggle was not at all that he’s pointing the finger at the government. My struggle with the film is that it seemed to be pretty narcissistic filmmaking where Zahedi ultimately is hurting other individuals more than himself (individuals in the UAE, plus his young and impressionable film crew) when he could have also made another film which talks honestly about the government, racism, etc without endangering the UAE individuals he put in the film. He stuck their necks out against their will “for the sake of art.” All the while claiming that he’s the victim, not them.

    To Zahedi’s credit, he kind of admits in the film that he’s being narcissistic in how he’s approaching the film, but admitting it doesn’t make it right.

    All that to say I did enjoy the film and obviously it gets people talking/thinking.