Caveh Zahedi built a reputation as a naughty provocateur with surreal docu-comedies like "A Little Stiff" and "I Am a Sex Addict," but his latest effort rises above self-interest and takes a stab at instigating change.
"The Sheik and I," a diary film about Zahedi's messy experience working on commission in the United Arab Emirates, still contains a mischievous edge. However, Zahedi has also made an alarming testament to the challenges of sincere expression in societies opposed to its function. It's a daring work made with reckless abandon — in other words, both irresponsible and necessary.
Hired by the Sharjah Art Foundation to create a short film for the UAE emirate's biennial celebration, Zahedi faces a paradoxical task. The genial and apparently open-minded curators of the foundation, avowed fans of his work, task him with creating a film illustrating "art as a subversive act." But they also establish a few puzzling restrictions from the outset, including the ominous edict to avoid mocking the Sheik of Sharjah. Though Zahedi frequently says he doesn't want to put anyone in danger, his resulting project repeatedly does just that by documenting the process behind its creation.
Grabbing his wife, their toddler and a few young assistants, Zahedi eagerly heads off to Sharjah with every intention of pushing any button he can find. The filmmaker conceives of a crass B-movie littered with ugly stereotypes about the kidnapping of the Sheik and insists the unseen leader play the role himself. That's only one of many requests that cause his poor hosts to stonewall him in apparent fear for their lives. "The Sheik & I" chronicles Zahedi's inability to make that movie.
Structured around his first-person voiceover, "The Sheik & I" could easily devolve into a narcissistic self-portrait, but Zahedi's candidness allows his narrative to nimbly shift between passionate censorship treatise and brash prank. Zahedi wanders through Sharjah asking curious locals to participate in various crass scenes, including some featuring gun-wielding terrorists and Orientalist portraits of Middle Eastern mannerisms. Those tasked with managing his presence in the country grow increasingly nervous.
Zahedi embraces the prospect of using stereotypes to fight stereotypes in the grand tradition of Sacha Baron Cohen, but the results are more similar to "The Red Chapel." Like Mads Brugger's examination of censorship and propaganda in Korea, the movie's principal accomplishment exists in the endless reactions from those helpless to stop Zahedi, but forced by governmental pressures to keep at it.
Zahedi's reckless disregard for his subjects shouldn't go unquestioned. It has been pointed out (both in the film and in media surrounding its production) that virtually everyone featured in the movie has been placed in danger by it, including a few Indian children directed by Zahedi to act in a sloven dance mocking Islamic prayer. On a certain level, simply mentioning "The Sheik & I" has the potential to heighten the danger surrounding its production.
However, by its very nature "The Sheik & I" draws a distinction between a filmmaker's responsibility and the outcome of his work. Zahedi is careless; what else is new? He doesn't bury that in the movie, which directly reflects a society struggling from oppression that much of the west knows little to nothing about. It's also very much a personal work that references the rest of Zahedi's career, including a cameo in "Waking Life" that inspired one of the Art Foundation's curators to become a filmmaker.
And so the movie is a vanity project, albeit one with unexpectedly weighty themes. Zahedi illustrates why freedom of expression in certain part of the world is impossible, but he does it with a lazy vernacular that illustrates the challenge of cultures coming to terms with their differences. Because Zahedi is so relentlessly disrespectful, he gets reactions we would otherwise never see on camera. The movie represents a call for help.
Zahedi includes pointed references to the country's class problems: An Egyptian cab driver gets nervous about helping out "because of racism," as a biennial representative explains to the filmmaker. The man then stops himself. "Oh, shit," he says. "That was on camera." That's exactly where Zahedi wanted it, of course. If anyone suffers as a result of the production, he bears the brunt of responsibility — but either way, his project speaks eloquently to a frightening conundrum.
When it was dropped from the lineup last year, this was an hourlong production entitled "Plot for a Biennial." The new version runs too long and meanders in parts, but Zahedi's convictions keep the story on track. Watching "The Sheik & I" is an increasingly uneasy experience that Zahedi exploits nearly as much as his subjects. Hand-drawn animation fills in for scenes that the camera doesn't catch, while spats between Zahedi and his benefactors take place via broken Skype connections, reflecting the constant failure to communicate.
Zahedi overreaches by drawing comparisons between his situation and other more dramatic conundrums, such as the fatwa unleashed on Salman Rushdie and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. But the director also makes a passionate case for his cause. "I know it's a little bit irreverent, but it's also a little bit reverent," he says. "Art should be playful with the sacred." His finale leaves open the chilling possibility of lethal reverberations for his work. In that sense, the subversive goal has been reached.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to stir up controversy following its SXSW premiere, "The Sheik and I" is likely to scare off a lot of distributors unwilling to deal with its controversial edge. However, that same aspect should help it gain some traction and find a way to the general public — if not through a wide release, then probably via self-distribution.