American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi has mastered the art of pushing people’s buttons. At 52, he’s best known for the 2006 comedy I Am a Sex Addict, a quasi-documentary about his obsession with prostitutes. Two of his previous documentaries, Tripping with Caveh and I Was Possessed by God, follow him tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, the latter resulting in “divine possession”. His films are profoundly uncomfortable, hysterically funny and bravely uncensored, driven by his charmingly mad self.
In late 2010, Zahedi was commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial – the largest art exhibition in the Middle East – to make a film on the theme of “art as a subversive act”. The curators told Zahedi he could do whatever he wanted, warning him only not to make fun of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al- Qasimi, Sharjah’s absolute ruler and the Biennial’s financier. Zahedi did precisely what he was forbidden to do, travelling to Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates) and turning his camera on the Biennial itself, enlisting locals to take part in his cinematic practical joke. The film was subsequently banned from the Biennial for blasphemy, and Zahedi was threatened with arrest. The controversy led to concern that the blasphemy laws in Sharjah (a conservative Islamic state) could result in jail time for anyone associated with the film.
The Sheik and I, out next month, is Zahedi’s feature-length documentary about his wild month in Sharjah, and his willingness to test political and social boundaries for the sake of his art.
Dazed & Confused: When you set out to make the film, did you expect it would cause such a controversy?
Caveh Zahedi: When I went to Sharjah I had no idea what I was going to find. I didn’t know it was a dictatorship. I didn’t know people were afraid of the government. Throughout the trip, I was just holding up a hypothetical divining rod, seeking out people or places with energy or tension, and then playing on it. A lot of people have had really extreme responses to the film – it’s been called irresponsible, imperialistic, and some say it could put people’s lives in danger. A lot of Muslims hate it, a lot of Arabs hate it, and a lot of liberal, PC Americans hate it too. But I hate PC-ness more than anything.
D&C: Thom Powers of the Toronto Film Festival called The Sheik and I “deeply troubling for its breach of documentary ethics and reckless behaviour.” That’s a heavy judgment.
Caveh Zahedi: Yeah. He compared me to the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who burned the Qur’an. But in my eyes my film is something completely different, because it’s a work of art. I’m saying something complicated about the idea of God and spirituality, I’m not just pissing people off in a monolithic way. But Thom Powers doesn’t seem to see the difference. He thinks I’m being ignorant and self-centred. And he’s worried about people associated with the film getting hurt as a result of it.
D&C: But in the film you make it clear that the Sharjah government, after consideration, said there would be no consequences for anyone who appeared in your movie. Is that right?
Caveh Zahedi: Well yes, but there’s a question mark that hangs over the situation, because there’s a dictator in Sharjah who can do whatever he wants, and there are Islamic fanatics who just kill people when they don’t like them. So when you are dealing with these irrational, loose-cannon types, anything can happen. But to censor a work of art because somebody crazy might do something seems wrong to me.
D&C: What makes the film seemingly commercial is that it’s so funny, and all the antics are done in good humour, almost like a real-life Borat.
Caveh Zahedi: But Borat isn’t offensive. There’s something about what Sacha Baron Cohen does that’s very PC, because the things he’s targeting are things that most people agree are bad, like homophobia or hateful right-wingers. But some people find what I do unethical. For example, sometimes I film people without their consent or knowledge, and right off the bat people think that’s wrong. Others think the film is culturally insensitive. But I’m not trying to not offend, I’m just trying to make a good film. In the art world you’d call it an ‘institutional critique’ – looking behind the facade of the institution. But most people don’t have that reference point. They’re just like, ‘Why are you being so rude? They invited you to their country and you were so ungrateful and ungracious, and so American.’ But it’s like, ‘Yeah, but that’s what’s interesting about the film!’
D&C: But as someone who is trying to create provocative art, don’t you sort of like it when people get pissed off?
Caveh Zahedi: That’s true. I’m glad people hate the film.
D&C: So is art basically a ‘get out of jail free’ card to do and say whatever you want?
Caveh Zahedi: The moral lines are basically the same as in real life: you shouldn’t hurt people. A snuff film seems wrong to me. You don’t get a ‘get out of jail free’ card to kill someone for the sake of a film. But if you’re not hurting anyone, then yes, you can do and say whatever you want. No one knows what the consequences of any particular action will be. It’s not unethical of Salman Rushdie to write The Satanic Verses. What’s unethical is to try to kill him for it.
D&C: How does being so honest, especially about sex stuff, affect your relationships?
Caveh Zahedi: It definitely causes some friction. I never showed my mom Sex Addict and she doesn’t want to see it, because she knows it would disturb her. But I try not to let that stop me from doing something I want to do.
D&C: Do you ever censor yourself?
Caveh Zahedi: There was one scene in an early edit of Sex Addict of a man who had molested his daughter talking about his past, and how he had hurt the person he loved the most, and he was crying while expressing all this remorse. And I really started to relate to the guy. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve hurt people too, and I feel remorse too, so I guess him and I aren’t so different.’ But everyone I showed the film to insisted that child molestation is a whole different ballgame, and that the scene was asking too much of the audience. You have to pick your battles, so I took it out. I was trying to make the film commercially viable, so that people would be affected by it, and it wouldn’t just be completely ghettoised.
D&C: What are your opinions on the current state of independent cinema, in this time when cameras are affordable enough that practically anyone can make a movie?
Caveh Zahedi: Everyone is making movies, and a lot of them are really good. It’s impressive how many great films are being made. When I started making films there were no videotapes and you couldn’t see a movie unless you were in a cinema, so the level of film culture was much lower. People now are so much more film-literate than they used to be, which means that naturally there’s going to be a lot more experimentation in filmmaking.
D&C: You talk about your failures as much as your successes. Lena Dunham (a big fan of yours) told Dazed recently that she views her own embarrassment as a tool for connection. Do you feel similarly about self-deprecation?
Caveh Zahedi: Absolutely. David Lynch once said that all great films have at least one really embarrassing moment in them. And I like it when other people talk about their failings, because it makes me feel better. They’re the most interesting things to hear about! Inside that dialectic of shame and pretence is where people really live.
The Sheik and I will be released by Factory 25 on December 7
Photography by Bibi Borthwick