The Sheikh andCaveh Zahedi
I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Any-more (1994)
In the beginning,Zahedi calls this lm “an experi-ment in aith” and an attempt toprove that God exists by docu-menting a trip to Las Vegas withhis estranged ather and hal- brother. The lm drew ack orone scene in particular, in whichZahedi tries to convince his dadand brother to take ecstasy withhim on camera. Whether or notZahedi succeeds in ullling theloty metaphysical goals he setsor the lm is anyone’s guess.
In the Bathtub o the World(2001)
A video diary basedon the concept o lming oneminute every day o 1999 andediting the results down to 90minutes, the lm shows Zahediat his most playul and whimsi-cal, but also his most narcissisticand sel-indulgent.
One minutehe’s worrying about a myste-rious indent in his orehead,the next he’s at Sundance la-ment
ing not being able to meetMichael Stipe in the bathroom when he had the chance, all cul-
Reporting by EricFernandez & Aaron Light
t is hard to understand why thecurators o the Sharjah Art Founda-tion in the United Arab Emiratescommissioned New School proes-sor and
o Americanindependent cinema Caveh Zahedito create a lm or the Sharjah Bien-nial, a cornerstone o contemporary art in the Middle East. Surely some-one along the line would realize thatthe auteur behind the autobiograph-ical “I Am a Sex Addict” would be anill-tting choice or the most impor-tant cultural event in the Emirates, aconservative autocracy most amousor its extravagant wealth and hu-man rights abuses.But commission they did. Withthe promise o $15,000, money romthe Emir o Sharjah himsel, Zahedilet New York in the dead o winteror the arid Gul State. With NewSchool students in tow as internsand production assistants, he set outto make a movie about the experi-ence o making a movie in Sharjah.One year later and the lm is banned in the United Arab Emir-ates, having never been shown atthe biennial it was commissionedor. Zahedi and his crew have beenthreatened with arrest i they return. A year-long legal battle about therights to his surviving ootage hasonly recently been resolved in his a- vor. Now, the director is working ona eature-length version o his story;a movie about censorship, politics,religion and lmmaking itsel.“I think they thought that becauseo my name, I would know what todo and what not to do in a country like that,” Zahedi, an Iranian-Ameri-can, said. “I didn’t.”When Zahedi accepted the gig, thecurators gave him three guidelineshe was required to ollow: no rontalnudity, no mockery o the prophetMuhammed, and no derision to- wards the government o the U.A.E.or Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi o Sharjah — who unded the biennial and whose daughter, theSheikha, ran it.“They didn’t make it sound se- vere at all. They made it sound likeI could do whatever I wanted, i Iavoided a ew specic things,” Za-hedi said recently in the basemento a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, where he lives with his wie and son.“It sounded like I might have to cutcertain scenes or the biennial, butthat I could do whatever I wanted with my own ootage.”It’s air to say that Zahedi ollowedthe prohibition against nudity to theletter. But in the nished product,“Plot or a Biennial,” the director rst bumps against, and then steamrolls,the second two directives, identiy-ing almost every kind o politicaland cultural sensitivity he can andconronting them ull-orce.Just a ew o the highlights: arow o Indian kids, the children o migrant laborers, dance the can-can to the Islamic call to prayer. A Palestinian working with the bien-nial describes pervasive racism inthe Emirates. In one scene, Zahediconvinces a local Sharjah resident,ater a great deal o coaxing, to play Sheikh al-Qasimi, the Sharjah big- wig, in an elaborately staged kidnap-ping plot, ater which, in one itera-tion, the Sheikh comes to his sensesand changes the labor laws o Shar- jah — a sore spot with the country’sruling elite, as Human Rights Watchaccuses the U.A.E. o exposing mi-grant workers to “severe exploitationand abuse.” Closer to home, Zahedishows how the Sheikh’s daughter, who ostensibly helps run the pres-tigious art oundation, is never actu-ally in her ofce. Day ater day, her
The Films of Zahedi
secretary oers the same excuse: theSheikha is “praying.”So it’s unsurprising that the lm wasn’t warmly received when Za-hedi submitted a cut to the estival.First, the lm was banned. Then, thedirector and his crew were bannedrom the country, along with his stu-dent assistants, and threatened witharrest i he returned. The U.A.E. isone o ve Muslim-majority coun-tries that has the death penalty or blasphemy, the likely charge.But Sharjah oundation ofcials weren’t content to merely preventthe lm rom being shown at theestival. At rst, the oundation de-manded that all scenes reerring tothe Sharjah Art Foundation or theSheikh be deleted, which wouldhave constituted the majority o themovie. Eventually, Zahedi and theoundation worked out a settlement which allowed him to keep his oot-age.Now, Zahedi is working on a ea-ture-length movie about his experi-ence in the U.A.E., the making o themovie, and the ght aterward. OnNovember 11, he screened a roughcut o the new movie, “The Sheikhand I,” or his Lang contemporary cinema class, his lawyer in tow.
he Sheikh and I” is a whol-ly remarkable lm. Instead o anhour-long piece or a biennial, un-likely to be seen much again, Zahedihas wrested rom the experience adeeply layered and involving piece o lmmaking. It is a documentary, in a way, about the Emirates. It’s also anaecting personal testimonial: someo the lm’s most memorable scenesconcern his son, Beckett. And it’s aplayul postmodern meta-narrativeabout lmmaking.Zahedi has talked in multiple ven-ues, most notably the 2001 RichardLinklater movie “Waking Lie,” aboutthe ‘holy moment:’ André Bazin’sidea that lmmaking at its best is atranscendental — and religious —phenomenon. Film is Zahedi’s reli-gion, and one he takes seriously.“Filmmaking is a release or me,and it’s hugely important to me per-sonally,” he said. “Nothing irritatesme more than people getting in the way o my movies.”The United Arab Emirates comesacross, then, as a place specically designed to rustrate the director.Over the course o the movie, Za-hedi systematically ails to be able topractice his religion, stymied by o-cials, unwilling participants, and ahost o cultural conventions.“The Sheikh and I”’s true valueis not simply that it says disparag-ing, and oten true, things about theEmirates — or example, that racismis a widespread problem. The prob-lem the lm poses to the Emir isprecisely that it shows that
no one isallowed to say
that racism is a prob-lem.As Yassan, the Palestinian bien-nial employee, says in the movie, incountries with no reedom o speech,“no one is allowed to say there is noreedom o speech.”
ut or all o the remarkablethings “The Sheikh and I” has to say about lie in the Gul states, the lmtook a toll on many o the people ittouched. Perhaps the most impor-tant question the movie poses to its viewers: What is the ethical respon-sibility o an artist operating in anauthoritarian state?First, Zahedi employed dozens o Sharjah residents — rom all dier-ent backgrounds — to act as extrasin his movie, and he talked to a greatmany people about lie in the Emir-ates.Now that the lm is known tothe government, Zahedi and his American assistants are saely over-seas. But the impact on the otherso taking part in what is seen by theauthorities as a blasphemous andtreasonous venture is unclear. At the very least, many involved eel per-sonally betrayed.“They’re all urious,” Zahedi said.The director added that he was sur-prised by the hostile eedback hereceived rom some o the lm’s par-ticipants.Rasha Salti, the curator who origi-nally invited Zahedi to take part inthe biennial, is troubled by the e-ect the movie has had on its partici-pants.“Caveh never realized how many people’s eelings he hurt in Shar- jah,” she said in an email. “He never wanted to acknowledge that they eltmanipulated and betrayed by him.”Zahedi also said that he doesn’tknow what has happened to any o the people he lmed in the movie.He said he has been advised not totry to contact them, as his emails would likely be read by the authori-ties.Some actors are more vulnerablethan others. O particular concernto Zahedi — and to the viewer — isa Pakistani migrant, Mansour, whoserves as Zahedi’s driver. It is Man-sour who Yassan speaks o when de-scribing the pervasive racism in theEmirates, and he also takes part inthe scenes involving the kidnappingo the ake Sheik.But others stand to be negatively aected, as well, including Yassanand Zahedi’s translator, Camille. Inone scene that is difcult to watch, Yassan tries to warn Zahedi againstusing an actor to portray Sheik Qasi-mi while being surreptitiously re-corded by the crew. Yassan proceedsto give his most damning indict-ments o lie in the Emirates. Zahedisaid his cameraman misunderstoodthe order to stop recording — but hestill put the ootage in his movie.Camille, a Canadian convert toIslam, was mortied at being part o a movie he elt mocked his religion.He’s currently seeking residency inthe U.A.E., his application may beaected by the lm.Salti remains immensely rustrat-ed and regretul about the situation.“I carry the burden o ailure thatthe invitation to Caveh eventually turned out to be,” she said. “I regret-ted every moment I trusted Caveh.”
et even though “The Sheikhand I” is at times uncomortable to watch, it’s impossible to avert youreyes.While Zahedi and his crew were inSharjah that winter, protests in Tuni-sia and Algeria, ostensibly triggered by rising ood prices, were pickingup pace and attracting scattered me-dia attention in the west. Ater they had returned to the States, the ArabSpring came into ull bloom.The Gul states have proved most-ly impervious to the wave o popularprotests. With indeatigable reserveso oreign currency, the Emirateshave been able to attract high-pro-le Western cultural institutions— a branch o the Guggenheim, theLouvre, an NYU campus in AbuDhabi — while masking the autoc-racy within. Zahedi’s movie poses anexcellent and well-timed challengeto the hollow, ake openness o theGul States.Zahedi is condent that he madethe right decisions, and said he hasreceived positive eedback rom oth-er lmmakers.Alan Berliner, the documentary lmmaker, told Zahedi that “youdid everything you were supposedto do as an artist. The act that they banned it just means you hit the bulls eye.”Bahman Kiarostami, lmmakerand son o legendary Iranian direc-tor Abbas Kiarostami, was morepassionate in his support.“It is an honor to be banned by those Emirati bastards,” he said.
minating in taking ecstasy with his wie on new year’seve, moments beore thenew millennium. Zahedi’sdaily lie isn’t consistently interesting enough to war-rant an hour and a hal o one’s undivided attention, yet, in it’s own way, thelm is signicant or beingahead o its time: a precur-sor to the deluge o video blogs that have since be-come ubiquitous in mod-ern society by way o siteslike Youtube.
“I Am a Sex Addict”(2005)
Zahedi’s mostully realized lm, I am aSex Addict took 15 yearsto make. By way o reen-actments, home movies,candid conessions andanimation, Zahedi chroni-cles his longtime addictionto prostitutes and the hav-oc his perpetual honesty about it wreaked on hismarriages and relation-ships.
Caveh Zahedi and his son Beckett, a main character in his new lm “The Sheikh and I,” at their home in Carroll Gardens. Photos by Eric Fernandez