The Austin Chronicle

Art as Acts of Subversion and Immersion

March 9, 2012, Screens

Making Movies for Fun or Fatwa in the Persian Gulf

Caveh Zahedi knows how to push buttons

You've gotta love Caveh Zahedi – no matter how they feel about him in the United Arab Emirates. The Iranian-American's latest film, The Sheik and I, has its antecedent in an unsolicited commission from the United Arab Emirates' Sharjah Art Foundation for a 20-minute film to be shown at its 10th contemporary art biennial with the theme of art as a subversive act. No irony was intended at the time, despite the fact that Zahedi's most recent and best-known film was the beyond outré autobiography I Am a Sex Addict (2005) which explored the chilling effects his propensity for prostitutes had upon his romantic prospects. In an earlier film, Zahedi – whose on-camera persona and cinematic explorations out-Albert Brooks Albert Brooks – attempted to prove the existence of God by taking a road trip to Las Vegas with his Iranian-born father and half-brother. When the premise – that if God exists, He will make the film work – didn't pan out, plan B was to persuade his family to take ecstasy with him. The Yale philosophy graduate, who teaches film at the New School in New York, is also known for a memorable star turn in Rick Linklater's Waking Life. Despite all of the above, the Sharjah Art Foundation imposed a few constraints upon Zahedi's artistic libido: no frontal nudity and no making fun of the prophet Muhammad or the sheik. Uh ... OK.

Yes, others – on either side – might have sniffed trouble ahead. But the story of how a seemingly straightforward commission ended not with an lavish Persian Gulf world premiere but with a Rushdie-esque bang – the filmmaker and his then-spoiler-titled film, Plot for a Biennial, banned from Sharjah – is one crazy tale. All of it is unpacked with signature Caveh style in the feature he made, upon the conclusion of protracted legal negotiations and with footage repurposed from his kiboshed original commission. The Sheik and I is a hilarious, irreverent, making-of-the-movie story that Zahedi created with a small student crew, his wife and toddler in tow, pulling "actors" off the streets of Sharjah for a plot he made up on the fly. – Anne S. Lewis

Austin Chronicle: OK, how did the Sharjah Foundation pick you?

Caveh Zahedi: I think the curator liked my work and thought I was appropriately edgy and might supply some desirable street cred for a festival not necessarily associated with edgy work. I think she thought of me as an Iranian filmmaker rather than an American filmmaker and figured I'd understand the limits of what can and can't be said and also that I would give a shit, which I don't. I assume that their theme of art as a subversive act was part of that same impulse at achieving greater legitimacy in the eyes of the art world. 

AC: And you accepted because ... ?

CZ: I accepted the Sharjah offer because I hadn't been able to get anything financed for the past several years and was dying to make something again. I like the challenge of a commission and I liked that other people would be involved.

AC: Was Sheik really as shoot from the hip as it seemed?

CZ: It was as shoot from the hip as it seems. It could have turned out terribly.

AC: Are your films all true or do you "fictionalize" some parts?  

CZ: I describe them as autobiographical. They are "all true" in the sense that I don't make stuff up, but I definitely put my slant on things which means they become inevitable distortions of something that happened. 

AC: What about your on-camera persona? Do we get the "real" Caveh?  Are you scripted or just talking off the cuff, as you appear to be?

CZ: The camera persona is partly constructed and partly not. It's not the only Caveh that exists, but it's a Caveh that definitely exists when a camera is on. I'm always talking off the cuff. I'm not good at delivering previously written lines with any conviction.

AC: I must say, watching Sheik after Sex Addict, it was a bit jarring to see you so settled into domestic life, now married and with a son, Beckett. Has your personal life affected the direction of your films?

CZ: I try to follow the lead of my life, and my life takes me where it takes me. Right now, it has taken me to fatherhood, which is something I'm loving. 

The Sheik and I

Documentary Competition

Sunday, March 11, 9pm, Vimeo

Monday, March 12, 4:45pm, Alamo Lamar

Wednesday, March 14, 11:15am, Alamo Lamar

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