“Blacklisting,” Free Speech, and, Well, Huh

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In a online video, Caveh Zahedi (The Sheik & I) claims he was “blacklisted” by festival programmer Thom Powers, who responded saying the filmmaker “can’t seem to accept that he’s made a film with a mixed response.”

I have been watching the discussion among Caveh Zahedi, Thom Powers, and other journalists and critics unfold these last few days.

Zahedi directed a documentary titled The Sheik & I, a commissioned work about the subversiveness of art. The work was commissioned by a group in the Middle East, and a key rule, according to the descriptions, was that he couldn’t make fun of the sheik.

Zahedi did so anyway. Those commissioning the work were not too happy with the result, and Zahedi faced jail time and blasphemy charges.

A couple days ago, Zahedi posted a video claiming, I Was Blacklisted by Thom Powers. Powers is a documentary programmer for Stranger Than Fiction, Montclair Film Festival, and The Documentary Club run by SundanceNOW, among others. Zahedi claims, and Powers confirms, that the programmer wrote to several journalists about the film and shared information with the programmer of SXSW as well.

The exchange has set off a range of commentary and reaction: Filmmaker Magazine, IndieWire, Peter Rinaldi, and Collider.

“Blacklisting” is too strong a word, though I suppose as a rhetorical device, it’s working to get people’s attentions. Blacklisting in the McCarthy era had some strong repercussions for those who ended up on the blacklist, including being barred from working in the Hollywood industry for decades and ultimately killing their careers. Very few bounced back from it.

It’s also too strong a word for a film that is getting shown and winning festival screenings and recognition. Further, Zahedi has access to and uses social media. Blacklisting is silencing, which is far from the case here.

I’m struck by the freedom of speech issue. Freedom of speech, as defined by the Bill of Rights, is unique to the United States. U.S. citizens can (and do) critique their politicians without fear of reprisals because they are protected by that right. But free speech is not a global right, not an international right, and it’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The threat of jail time for Zahedi is just one example of why it shouldn’t be.

I’m also struck by what is being characterized as a blatant disregard for the commissioning body and its requests. Even in the trailer for The Sheik & I, Zahedi talks about winging it. The film makes fun of the sheik, and it has been banned from the commissioning country. Yes, I understand that the film was to be about the subversiveness of art, but did that subversiveness have to come from the position of the “clueless American tourist” stereotype?

On the one hand, this whole thing just sounds like an irresponsible public relations move. On the other hand, it also could be part of the performance a la Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here or, worse, Borat. Either way, it just leaves me, well, huh.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.