Caveh Zahedi

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P29Bhkg-NpQ

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.
I Am a Sex Addict
 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 The Sheik 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.

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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.

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