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Critic's Notebook: Was Caveh Zahedi "Blacklisted" By Thom Powers? It's More Complicated Than That

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 7, 2012 at 10:9AM

The latest provocation from performance artist/filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, "The Sheik and I," began as a short film illustrating "art as a subversive act." While it was bound to push some buttons, no one could have predicted the series of conflicts it would create.
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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."

Thom Powers with documentary legend Albert Maysles at the DOC NYC festival.

I wasn't the only person Powers contacted that week. In addition to sending similar notes to two other journalists, Powers contacted SXSW's top programmer, Janet Pierson, imploring her to cancel the film's world premiere. Powers says he also contacted Zahedi around this time with the bold suggestion that the filmmaker himself withdraw the film, but did not hear back. Powers has serious clout in the documentary world, but in this case he couldn't stop the pieces already in motion: "The Sheik and I" premiered at SXSW to contentious reaction, and several reviews (including my own) praised it.

However, his actions bring up another issue: Should any programmer have the authority to contact festivals and make demands on their programming decisions? Powers wields enough influence to make his arguments have more impact than any given angry viewer. Like it or not, Zahedi's film engages with freedom of speech; Powers' insistence that festivals not show the movie runs counter to the the specific arguments found in it.

For me, "The Sheik and I" delivers a trenchant exposé of what can happen to a society that restricts its citizens from critiquing the boundaries imposed on them. There's a distinction between the moral quandaries involving the film's creation and the analysis of censorship in areas of the Middle East -- which only exists because of the extreme measures Zahedi chose to take. I decided to introduce that conclusion into my review starting with the headline: "Caveh Zahedi Puts Lives in Danger and Faces a Fatwa for 'The Sheik and I.' Immoral or Essential? Try Both."

I don't know if Powers appreciated my reaction to the movie, but he can take some credit for my approach. At this point, however, I had to contend with Zahedi, who wrote a letter to my editor contesting the implication of immorality in his filmmaking tactics. I reached out to Zahedi to clarify my position, which led to a friendly correspondence in which he hinted at attempts by "certain persons" to prevent the film from being seen that had put him on edge. Our discussion carried over into a public conversation in front of a live audience during SXSW as part of a series co-hosted by Indiewire at the festival. There, Zahedi briefly mentioned Powers' disdain for the movie and pointed out that he had contacted me, but mainly the dialogue revolved about the aesthetic issues surrounding the film -- particularly the way it takes a set of expectations and pushes them to a breaking point.

It continues to do that. "The Sheik and I" has now divided audiences around the world, including the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June, where Zahedi also faced a contentious post-screening Q&A. In August, Zahedi contacted me to see if I would do an interview for a short film he was producing in conjunction with the film's release (which was then scheduled for November). Not interested in placing myself into this particular narrative for material that could be funneled into a marketing tactic, I chose not to respond. This week, ahead of today's opening of "The Sheik and I" at Brooklyn's Videology screening space, Zahedi sent along an eight-minute account of the SXSW events (including a clip from our SXSW conversation), dubiously titling the work "I Was Blacklisted By Thom Powers."

Like "The Sheik and I," the short is solely carried by Zahedi's first-person approach, and his whiny style makes it hard to tell when he's messing with you. (Watch it below.) While his complaint about Powers holds a certain objective validity -- Zahedi made a movie and this guy tried to get in his way -- Zahedi naturally takes the situation to an absurd extreme by characterizing Powers as a tyrannical antagonist on par with the Sheik of Sharjah (and, via the title of the video, Joseph McCarthy).

On Thursday, Powers, who until now declined to speak openly about the situation, released a public statement. Pointing out that he selected Zahedi's "I Am a Sex Addict" for SundanceNow's Doc Club earlier this year, Powers insisted that he had only taken action because "I thought the issues were serious enough to warrant further consideration." Understandably, he resented Zahedi's invoking of the McCarthy-era blacklist, "when filmmakers had their livelihoods threatened," and noted the irony "that Zahedi stands on the ground of free speech, yet wants to smear me for exercising mine."  

Powers' statement more or less straightens things up for one reason: Despite his considerable efforts, "The Sheik and I" still got its big festival premiere, plenty of positive reviews and distribution with indie label Factory 25. Zahedi received ample exposure for the movie and now has the opportunity to make money on it.

However, while Powers' efforts may have been a lost cause, his willingness to make them in the first place raises another troubling question. Because he programs for so many festivals, Powers' public attempt to censor "The Sheik and I" encourages the perception that he maintains far too much singular weight in the festival community. If one programmer can stifle any movie he or she finds offensive, it establishes a precedent antithetical to the expansive nature of public discourse, regardless of the medium or its potential to create harm. One can engage with the flaws of Zahedi's approach by watching his movie, but Powers also engaged in an inelegant maneuver that he now must answer for.

Powers -- a smart, cultured man whose passion for nonfiction cinema is obviously genuine -- gets that. "I didn't want people treating the film lightly," he told me in a phone conversation on Thursday. "Maybe it's hubristic of me to think I needed to add to their sensitivity, but given the volatility of the context of the film, I was willing to air my complaints." While clearly taken aback by Zahedi's response, Powers stands by his initial reaction. "I don't think I've ever encountered a filmmaker who ever had such a gross negligence of ethics as those expressed in the film," he said.

That's also why, he says, filmmakers and programmer shouldn't feel intimidated by Powers' alleged grasp on the festival community. While he declined to comment on whether his connection with the TIFF programmer who appears in Zahedi's movie played a role in his opposition to it, Powers pointed out that he has never made such a blatant attempt to suppress a movie before. Whether or not he wears too many programming hats (many of us are mostly curious about how he wears so many programming hats), the tenuous notion that he has abused his authority holds as much water as Powers' original suggestion that festivals not show the film.

"Look, what's disappointing to me is that I think the conversation of this film should be the safety of the people in it," he said. "Caveh says in the video that he got someone to sign a contact guaranteeing their safety. But what recourse did he have? The real victory for him is that he got the right to show his film."

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, The Sheik and I, Caveh Zahedi, Thom Powers