In “The Sheik and I” director Caveh Zahedi once again turns the camera on himself, this time as he chronicles his attempts to create and exhibit a film commissioned by the Sheik of Sharjah for the emirate’s art biennial. The film is stitched together with Zahedi’s after-the-fact recalling and contextualization of the events of the production, along with behind-the-scenes style footage, brief glimpses at the film within a film that Zahedi is supposedly originally creating, unpolished animated sequences, and even just white text on a black screen (for when the cameras run out of batteries, which appears is often due to Zahedi’s always-be-rolling approach).
Before launching into the story, Zahedi tries on a series of shirts to wear as he narrates the film, peering at his image on an off-screen monitor and wondering aloud how each shirt will cause him to be perceived. His assistant behind the camera eagerly plays along, suggesting a red shirt is, “a little aggressive maybe.” Zahedi quickly responds with the minimal amount of inquisitiveness to make his reply qualify as a question, responding, “Aggressive?” Here begins the director’s scheme of putting judgement in the mouths of others. His attempts to get raw analysis from his often barely willing participants invent a drama that initially has no purpose beyond fueling itself. He’s spurring critical thinking but in the most annoying way possible.
“The Sheik and I” is a commissioned film for an arts festival celebrating “the production of art as a subversive act.” Actually, it is a film about the making of that commissioned film, at least, until that one is done. Then it becomes a film about the censorship of the film about the commissioned film. Somehow Zahedi holds this all together and acts like it’s no big deal, ready to act wildly surprised when the world isn’t exactly as he would have expected it to be. While the director might not be in control of the world he’s navigating in the film, he’s certainly in control of how we see it. He plays himself walking a line between innocence and ignorance, but really he’s a blindfolded magician throwing knives with a secret hole in the fabric to peek through, one eye always on the target.
Zahedi’s wide-eyed curiosity invigorates the plot whenever it starts to lag. When he innocently asks why anyone would object to appearing in a scene mixing terrorism, weapons and Muslim prayer, he exposes the issue in its barest form. Zahedi continues to play the ignorant American, isolating the tension on both sides. His wary actors initially explain to him that his concept isn’t realistic and is in fact stupid, which the director waves off, saying that he knows it’s stupid and it doesn’t need to be realistic. The actors persist, clarifying that it’s not that they don’t understand his intentions in the moment, but that the people that see it will not understand and will take offense to it. Zahedi persists until the actors express fear at putting themselves in danger, a call that the director leaves to them to make.
Zahedi doesn’t have a difficult time finding people to get involved with his production. From the moment they land in Sharjah, he starts recruiting almost everyone he meets to be in his movie in some way. The man hired to pick up the director and his crew from the airport, Mansour, immediately becomes a part of the film as well as the film they are making for the arts festival. Soon after, he recruits an employee of the organization that has hired the filmmaker, named Yazan, to play a kidnapper. They all set out together to shoot a scene guerilla-style but then realize that they are about to use the house of the daughter of the Sheik as the backdrop for a scene featuring a kidnapper holding a machine gun and wearing a burqa. Zahedi doesn’t relent though and keeps pushing to shoot the scene anyway until Mansour, who has been a good sport and played along with the director’s off-the-wall approach to filmmaking, finally objects. Yazan agrees it’s a bad idea and suggests they leave, prompting Zahedi to activate his ignorant mode, requiring Yazan to break it down in simple terms. He explains that because Mansour is Indian and is in the emirate to work to support his family, he could face deportation for participating in this ill-advised scene in the production. He goes on to explain, “Because of racism,” and then quickly, “Oh shit, that was on camera.”
That moment becomes the core of the film; admissions of indisputable fact shrinking at the thought of someone actually hearing them. The events of the film take place on such an inoffensive micro level that no one really objects to Zahedi’s interviews — until the weight of a camera pointing at them sinks in. With the camera comes the threat of exhibition, and after that, unification of an idea that could oppose the Sheik himself on a macro level. Zahedi isn’t even interested in a specific idea, he readily admits he could care less about the politics that he doesn’t understand, but instead is interested in the death of an idea at the hands of censorship. By taking on his assignment of subversion to its extreme he discovers, “In a place with no freedom of speech, you can’t say there is no freedom of speech.”
Zahedi is impressively committed to his filmmaking approach, but still sensitive to the fallout from his tactics. He concedes his personal stakes are low, admitting, “The worst that could ever happen before is my work doesn’t get shown.” Many of the folks that star in his film however are at risk to lose their jobs or even face deportation from the emirate for their involvement with the film, leaving Zahedi to deal with the ethical puzzle he’s created for himself.
At times he might seem to champion himself above all others in the film, but Zahedi takes plenty of opportunities to embarrass himself and identify the important details he misses with his broad view. His ever-present young son Beckett chatters at him constantly, a noise which the on-screen Zahedi barely acknowledges, dismissing the talk by parroting it back at him incorrectly. In the edit though, Zahedi doesn’t just maintain that chattering presence, but subtitles it, calling even more attention to his on-screen inability to understand or care. When playing the clueless American, he speaks confidently in English to anyone he encounters, making no effort to endear himself to the locals. Instead, he uses the opportunity to firmly announce the perspective of the film, one that supposedly has no biases beyond logic.
In all, Zahedi is winning and even goofily charming if you can digest his abrasive approach to filmmaking; probably grating otherwise. He willingly plays the fool for us, skirting around politeness to get to the heart of his subjects’ mindsets and fears. The film moves quickly and is remarkably structured to reference itself when necessary, fattening its own ideas with its unfiltered logic. It resolves satisfactorily, even if it never really overcome the obstacles it directly identifies. The dissection and consideration are enough. [A-]