It was too weird to be true. In April, 2011, friends from near and far began forwarding me an article about someone I had not spoken to in some time, the Brooklyn-based independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi. The lengthy feature piece was from the New York Times and detailed the controversy Zahedi, 52, encountered following the completion of a commissioned doc titled The Sheik and I.
The fracas had begun after Caveh had been selected to take part in the Sharjah Biennial, an art event in the repressive but enormously wealthy United Arab Emirates. Owing to the content in Zahedi’s completed work, the Biennial had decided not to allow the film to be shown and was seeking through legal action to destroy every copy in existence.
Oddly, the theme chosen by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the sponsor of the Biennial, was the all-too-ironic “art as a subversive act”. When one thinks of subversion, Sharjah hardly comes to mind. Ruled since 1972 by Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, Sharjah has no free elections, no opposition parties, no free press, no trade unions and no citizenship rights for its hundreds of thousands of foreign guest workers.
I have known Caveh Zahedi since 1998. When he was still living in Los Angeles and I was attending UCLA film School, I shot and edited his half-hour doc I Was Possessed by God, a terrifying hi-8 chronicle of Caveh ingesting a heroic dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms. After several other collaborations, I had no less than nine credits, among them editor and producer, for his 2006 feature I Am A Sex Addict, Zahedi’s autobiographical account of his addiction to prostitutes shot in and around the San Francisco area for over half a decade.
Years before I met Caveh Zahedi, the filmmaker had raised eyebrows with a highly transgressive portrait of his dysfunctional family, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994). Vegas featured a road trip to Nevada with Caveh prodding his gambler father and delinquent half-brother to ingest Ecstasy with him in the hopes of producing a better film. The film went on to the Critic’s Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival where Caveh proceeded to take ecstasy at the screening, tripping heavily during the Q&A. I couldn’t help but wonder what Sharjah’s Canadian-born curator Rasha Salti had been thinking when she decided to enlist Zahedi for the Biennial.
These days I mostly write scripts, teach and occasionally program a film festival or two in Eastern Europe. Through 2011, Caveh forwarded me rough cuts of TheSheik and I as it evolved from the twenty-minute, rejected Biennial piece to the eventual feature that premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March 2012.
Using some of the stylistic conceits similar to those found in the irreverent I Am A Sex Addict, Sheik move deftly between Zahedi’s first-person camera address, found footage, home movies and even animation as the story moves to and from Sharjah. Caveh’s signature technique of rolling on every uncomfortable interaction with the foundation staff, foreign workers, and exiled artists reveals a climate in which the subjects are constantly censoring themselves and each other. Unsure as to exactly what he is supposed to be shooting in this cultural void, Caveh finally settles on filming a film within a film – a satirical plot-driven thriller. However, with increasing suspicion of Zahedi, “a man with an Iranian sounding name but who 100% acts like an American”, he finds himself thwarted at every turn.
The tension between Caveh and the foundation finally reaches a breaking point. The director attempts to film a fictional sequence in which the autocratic sheik is kidnapped but is so grateful for his release by some Indian children that he grants rights to all of Sharjah’s foreign guest workers. After rolling on a heavily truncated version of the scene, Caveh returned to the US.
Eventually, after presenting his short version of Sheik, the film was rejected by Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. It seems that the attempted kidnapping sequence was not as offensive to the curators as was a brief scene in which the group of Indian children mimic a Bollywood number set to the Islamic call to prayer. This outrage earned Zahedi not only a banning of the work but the threat of arrest on grounds of blasphemy if he returned to the United Arab Emirates.
Sometime after the NY Times piece, Sharjah settled its legal problems with Caveh Zahedi. The Sheik and I could be shown but nowhere near the Biennial. But the controversy was far from over. Right before the SXSW premiere last March, programmer Janet Pierson received an unsolicited e-mail from the influential Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers. Powers was writing to Pierson to let her know that he was “appalled and frightened” by Caveh’s treatment of his Middle East subject matter. Powers concluded ominously that she had put herself at risk and was now “in a difficult position” for premiering TheSheik and I.
Powers also referenced a private letter he had sent to Caveh. A few weeks before, the filmmaker had sent Sheik with the possibility of including it in another fest that Powers curates – New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival (Tom Powers is responsible for a variety of programming duties for nearly half a dozen North American festivals). Caveh claims he was genuinely surprised when Powers wrote that he found Sheik “deeply troubling for its breach of ethics and reckless behavior toward people who put their faith in you.’’ The letter concludes with Powers’ advice that Caveh pull the film before the upcoming SXSW premiere and “write it off as a bad experience.”
Missing from the concerned messages that Powers sent to Pierson, Zahedi and later several journalists was the name of the colleague now serving as the Middle East and African programmer for Toronto – none other than Biennial curator Rasha Salti. Several months after the Arab Spring first rocked the region, Sharjah Art Foundation director Persekian was fired by the royal family for another piece in the “‘subversive” show entirely unrelated to Caveh’s film.
After Persekian’s departure, Salti publicly denounced the Biennial, even starting a petition to demand the reinstatement of the fired director. Caveh spends much of Sheik’s last third, mostly a series of edgy Skype encounters, calling attention to Salti and her biennial cohorts, publicly defending the notion of artistic expression in repressive Sharjah while privately censoring work.
Thom Powers original letter to Caveh Zahedi was widely circulated to programmers and journalists throughout 2012. The whole affair became public knowledge when Filmmaker magazine published Powers’ letters to Caveh, Janet Pierson and writer Scott Macaulay in full last December.
Caveh wasted no time in using the free publicity to promote The Sheik and I, even producing a short film for the occasion, I Was Blacklisted by Thom Powers. Still, there is much to be said of the weighty pull of Powers. Several journalists opted not to write about the story (including one for DOX) while many of the comments onIndiewire and Filmmaker were made anonymously.
Thom Powers stands by his initial pronouncement that Caveh placed his subjects at grave risk and violated basic ethical standards of documentary filmmaking. This past year, I showed a very early cut of The Sheik And I to doc students in Kosovo and afterward discussed the morally complex relationship a filmmaker maintains with participants in a film.
The next day, I shifted focus and presented the classic Vietnam doc, Hearts and Minds (1975) directed by Peter Davis. Unexpectedly, several students raised their hands wanting to return to the previous topic. Why did the filmmaker show the face of the man who makes coffins for children and criticizes the government? Surely the police would have used the film to arrest him. More students whose parents had lived under communism spoke up. What about the tracking shots along the lines of the American-supported South Vietnamese troops? Wouldn’t the victorious North Vietnamese be able to identify the soldiers and imprison them along with their families? The debate continues.
Though Caveh Zahedi is clearly using the attendant controversy to plug his film, he has revealed much about the boundaries of control not only in the Middle East but among the cultural gatekeepers in the West. Perhaps the most promising outcome is to finally see the talented filmmaker move away from his personal obsessions and into a global perspective. In a time when many believe that access to technology automatically grants freedom and transparency, The Sheik and I reminds us that the purpose of non-fiction filmmaking is not to please but to provoke.