The Austin Chronicle

Art as Acts of Subversion and Immersion

'The Sheik and I,' 'Trash Dance,' and 'Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters'

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

Making the Invisble Visible

The unseen heroes of sanitation get their turn in the spotlight in 'Trash Dance'

You certainly see uncertainty on camera in Trash Dance, Andrew Garrison's documentary about the creation of a large-scale, site-specific dance showcasing city employees who haul off refuse for a living. The workers from Austin's Solid Waste Services Department, many of whom are middle-aged and African-American, aren't sure why this young white woman wants to make a dance about what they do, much less have them perform it. Choreographer Allison Orr isn't sure which of them will buy into her vision of a performance that draws attention to the everyday movements of sanitation workers and the machines they operate and reveals the beauty in them. And in the last week before the performance, no one is sure whether the storm clouds will break long enough for the dance to take place or if anyone will come see it if it does.

It turns out there was uncertainty behind the camera as well. Garrison started filming without really knowing Orr, her Forklift Danceworks company, or how she works, except that she makes dances with nontraditional performers and that The Trash Project, as she called it, would be focusing on sanitation workers. "I didn't know Allison. I didn't know what kind of person she was, how she would be received, how she would treat people," he says. "There were moments when it was, 'well, this is all OK, but is this gonna turn into anything? I don't know.'"

It turned into something, all right: a phenomenon. The weather did cooperate long enough for the one-shot performance to take place in September 2009, and more than 2,000 people stormed the abandoned runway where Austin's Mueller Airport once stood to watch. Their response as the two dozen city workers and 16 trucks created unexpectedly lyrical movements on the rain-slicked tarmac had the electric enthusiasm of a rock concert. That night, Garrison knew that the film would come together. But he had become sure of his subject months earlier, on the day he was filming Orr in the recycling center and she walked up to a city employee and began speaking to him in Spanish. He was knocked out by the way she remembered him, remembered his family, remembered his cultural background, and was very comfortable relating to him in that way. "Neither of them had to speak Spanish, you know, but it was great, because it was so obvious the way that she was able to connect with people," says Garrison. "That's when I knew that there would be something here, and it wouldn't be this situation where somebody who is disconnected has an idea and then tries to make everybody do that idea. It was all about the way that she gets people to own it and be a part of it and bring what they've got to it."

In his film, Garrison tracks Orr getting to know the people who perform this essential service and doing it inside their world: going on 6am trash and recycling routes, riding to the landfill, joining the overnight crew at 2:30am on New Year's Day to clean Sixth Street, even picking up dead animals. She was answering a question for herself – Who are the people who pick up my trash? – but she says she also wanted "to make a dance that offered a more fully human picture of the people who work as 'trash men,' and I wanted the audience and the performing employees to feel more connected to each other once the performance was over."

At that, Orr succeeded, says Garrison. "The performance changed relationships between people, both at work and between whoever the customers are and the people actually doing it." He saw it as audience members rushed to meet The Trash Project's performers, shaking their hands, getting their picture taken with them, thanking them not just for the show but the work they do daily. And he's seen them now greet the waste department employees as they do their jobs. Garrison believes that a transformational quality is embedded in his film. "I want people to see it because of that ability that it has to make you see the work differently and meet those people," he says. And that's not restricted to Austinites, either. "This is not a unique situation. Across our country, people are doing work that needs to be done, that's thought of as the lowest-of-the-low work, and we treat them as if they're invisible. We don't look in that direction. And I'd like other people to look in that direction." Robert Faires

Trash Dance

Documentary Spotlight

Saturday, March 10, 1:30pm, Paramount

Tuesday, March 13, 4:45pm, Paramount

Wednesday, March 14, 7:30pm, Canon Screening Room

Saturday, March 17, 7:30pm, Stateside

A Life in Stills

Ben Shapiro captures the motion behind the method

Gregory Crewdson is not a filmmaker. He's an artist who works, often for months, at a filmmaker's level of production – with actors, locations, set designs, props, and (especially) lighting – for just one still shot. No narrative leading to the shot, no narrative leading away, just the singular image itself.

Ben Shapiro is a filmmaker. His work has appeared in television, film, and new media; he's won awards for that work: a Peabody, an Emmy, others. This year's South by Southwest sees the debut of Shapiro's first full-length feature, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, which covers Crewdson's "Beneath the Roses" series of photos and was crafted from ten years of original footage. We recently spoke with the director – a Los Angeles native and a graduate of the University of Texas' Radio-Television-Film program – about his artful debut.

AC: You started out filming Gregory Crewdson for PBS, but when did you decide, OK, you want to make a full-length feature out of the footage?

BS: I'd been working a lot for this PBS show called Egg, which was around in the late Nineties, early 2000s. And they'd send filmmakers out to make shorts about artists – it was all about the arts – and they sent me to the Berkshires to film Crewdson taking one of his photographs. I hadn't met him before; I don't think I even knew much about him, but that was the first time, and that footage is in the film. ... And a few years later, I was commissioned by another arts channel that's not around anymore to do another piece about him. And at that point, I decided to go ahead and follow him – and that was in 2004. And since then, I've kept in touch with him. Gregory and his team would be getting ready for a shoot and they'd send me the production schedule, and I'd go up and do some shooting.

AC: So there's Crewdson directing all these people and circumstances in what's basically a single-frame film shoot, and there's you, filming a making-of on the process. Did you ever feel a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect?

BS: In a lot of ways, it was like any other documentary shoot. The things you're thinking about as a filmmaker – How do I cover this? Where should I be? What should I be shooting? At what point should I talk to the artist, engage with him? – those are the things that are occupying you, regardless of the subject, so it didn't really feel like a hall of mirrors. ... In a way, though, I had certain advantages. Because the sets were all lit, which benefits the films. And the same thing for the exterior shots, because the climax of the scenes, where he's taking the photograph, they planned to do that at "magic hour." So from my perspective of a filmmaker shooting them, it's nice, aesthetically, that there's a lot of magic-hour scenes in my movie just because that's how he schedules his shoots. There are definite visual advantages.

AC: What kind of crew do you use for these shoots?

BS: For almost all that stuff, it was just me. I work a lot as a kind of one-man band, and that's the way it was for most of those shoots: Just me and a camera and some sound gear and that was it. ... The advantage to that is that there's a much smaller impact on the whole scene. You go onto a set and you're even just two or three people? It's a very different presence. When you're just one guy with a camera, you can get away with a lot. ... And Gregory was always very accommodating and welcoming on the sets, told his crew I could go anywhere. There were a couple of times when I was physically on the set, hiding behind a car or something while they were shooting. Wayne Alan Brenner

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

Documentary Spotlight

Saturday, March 10, 9:30pm, Alamo Lamar

Sunday, March 11, 5pm, SXSatellite: Alamo Slaughter

Wednesday, March 14, 4pm, Alamo Lamar

Saturday, March 17, 11:30am, Vimeo

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