"The Sheik and I."
Sheffield Doc/Fest "The Sheik and I."

In early March, one week shy of the SXSW Film Festival, I received a secure link to view "The Sheik and I" online. Set to premiere in competition at SXSW, this was the latest provocation from performance artist/filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, whose reputation precedes him: Using a diary-like approach to make audiences uncomfortably intimate with his rabble-rousing, intensely neurotic persona, Zahedi's antics stretch back more than 20 years: They began with his debut feature, "A Little Stiff," and continued with later works like 2005's self-explanatory "I Am a Sex Addict." Needless to say, I figured "The Sheik and I" would push some familiar buttons, but could not have predicted the series of conflicts that it would create.

First off: I loved "The Sheik and I." A documentary essay narrated by Zahedi, it follows his comically doomed attempts to take on an assignment from the Sharjah Biennial arts festival a year ago, when a pair of curators from the Sharjah Art Foundation contacted Zahedi about producing a short film illustrating "art as a subversive act." With his wife and toddler in tow, Zahedi travels to the small Middle Eastern country with clear-cut intentions of stirring up trouble.

That's fair enough, given the dubious assignment, but regardless of what his hosts initially hoped to get from him it's clear that he went further than they expected: Constantly engaging locals (including young children) to perform stereotypical religious behavior, he constructs the plot of an ugly B-movie that revolves around an attempt to kidnap the elusive Sheik of Sharjah, whom he never meets. Many of Zahedi's subjects grow fearful of the project, afraid that even appearing on camera may endanger their lives. But we know about their reservations, of course, because Zahedi put them into the movie.

Using snippets of conversations and failed attempts to shoot his short film, Zahedi strings his narrative along with animations and voiceover bits that elaborate on his battle to finish the project even after the Sharjah Art Foundation decides to censor him. While indicting dictatorial extremes, Zahedi also more generally champions freedom of speech by making sweeping remarks about creative expression that demands to break rules. The dissonance between his patently silly approach and grave intentions never entirely flow together, but that's key to the film's subversive effect. While he eventually lands a legal arrangement with the Sharjah Government allegedly claiming that nobody associated with the movie will come to harm, it's impossible not to sympathize with their increasingly hazardous situation as a result of Zahedi's insistence on making his movie. By forcing that discomfort on his audience, Zahedi makes them engage with the movie's central themes.

Many viewers may find Zahedi's approach simple-minded regardless of the intentions behind it, but I had no qualms about voicing my own support for the movie on Twitter ahead of writing my review. Then the situation became more complicated. More than a passive observer of Zahedi's satiric tactics, I suddenly felt like part of them.  

Three days after Zahedi sent me the film, I received an email from Thom Powers in response to my tweet. Virtually anyone invested in the documentary film community knows the New York-based programmer, who maintains a unique prominence in the insular world of the film festival circuit. In addition to handling the prominent lineup for the Toronto International Film Festival, Powers provides programming assistance for the Miami International Film Festival, runs the "Stranger Than Fiction" series at New York's IFC Center, curates the documentary selection for the streaming service SundanceNow, and oversees the fall nonfiction festival DOC NYC with his wife Raphaela Neihausen. He was also hired by Bob Feinberg to program the Monclair Film Festival, which is known to receive great support from Stephen Colbert. That's what Zahedi says motivated him to contact Powers: An avowed Colbert fan, Zahedi figured the winking satirist might appreciate "The Sheik and I," and hoped that Powers could bring it to his attention.

Instead, Powers says he was horrified by the movie, characterizing it as a breach of documentary ethics that puts multiple lives at risk. "The film is framed as championing artistic freedom," Powers wrote me, "but rather than bearing the brunt of risk himself, Caveh put the greater risk on others." One of those people was Rasha Salti, the Beirut-based curator for the Sharjah Art Foundation. Salti features prominently in Zahedi's film, meeting with him about the idea behind the project and then routinely voicing her concerns about it in increasingly frantic Skype conversations. Salti also serves as a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival's African and Middle Eastern programming, making her one of Powers' colleagues, so one can imagine that his investment in the ramifications of Zahedi's film extended beyond mere principles. His e-mail to me concluded with a plea: "I do hope you keep this context in mind when thinking about the film."