The Sheikh and Caveh Zahedi
Thursday, December 15th, 2011
But commission they did. With the promise of $15,000, money from the Emir of Sharjah himself, Zahedi left New York in the dead of winter for the arid Gulf State. With New School students in tow as interns and production assistants, he set out to make a movie about the experience of making a movie in Sharjah. The Biennial tasked him with making a movie with the theme of art as a subversive act.
One year later and the film is banned in the United Arab Emirates, having never been shown at the biennial it was commissioned for. Zahedi and his crew have been threatened with arrest if they return. A year-long legal battle about the rights to his surviving footage has only recently been resolved in his favor. Now, the director is working on a feature-length version of his story; a movie about censorship, politics, religion and filmmaking itself.
“I think they thought that because of my name, I would know what to do and what not to do in a country like that,” Zahedi, an Iranian-American, said. “I didn’t.”
When Zahedi accepted the gig, the curators gave him three guidelines he was required to follow: no frontal nudity, no mockery of the prophet Muhammed, and no derision towards the government of the U.A.E. or Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi of Sharjah — who funded the biennial and whose daughter, the Sheikha, ran it.
“They didn’t make it sound severe at all. They made it sound like I could do whatever I wanted, if I avoided a few specific things,” Zahedi said recently from the basement of the Brooklyn brownstone where he lives. “It sounded like I might have to cut certain scenes for the biennial, but that I could do whatever I wanted with my own footage.”
It’s fair to say that Zahedi followed the prohibition against nudity to the letter. But in the finished product, “Plot for a Biennial,” the director first bumps against, and then steamrolls, the second two directives, if not directly mocking Muhammed, identifying almost every kind of political and cultural sensitivity he can and confronting them full-force.
Just a few of the highlights: A row of Indian kids, the children of migrant laborers, dance the can-can to the Islamic call to prayer. A Palestinian working with the biennial describes pervasive racism in the Emirates. In one scene, Zahedi convinces a local Sharjah resident, after a great deal of coaxing, to play Sheikh al-Qasimi, the Sharjah bigwig, in an elaborately staged kidnapping plot, after which, in one iteration, the Sheikh comes to his senses and changes the labor laws of Sharjah — a sore spot with the country’s ruling elite, as Human Rights Watch accuses the U.A.E. of exposing migrant workers to “severe exploitation and abuse.” Closer to home, Zahedi shows how one of the senior officials with the foundation is never actually in her office. Day after day, her secretary offers the same excuse: the official is “praying.”
So it’s unsurprising that the film wasn’t warmly received when Zahedi submitted a cut to the festival. First, the film was banned. Then, the director and his crew were banned from the country, along with his student assistants, and threatened with arrest if he returned. The U.A.E. is one of five Muslim-majority countries that has the death penalty for blasphemy, the likely charge.
But Sharjah foundation officials weren’t content to merely prevent the film from being shown at the festival. At first, the foundation demanded that all scenes referring to the Sharjah Art Foundation or the Sheikh be deleted, which would have constituted the majority of the movie. Eventually, Zahedi and the foundation worked out a settlement which allowed him to keep his footage.
Now, Zahedi is working on a feature-length movie about his experience in the U.A.E., the making of the movie, and the fight afterward. On November 11, he screened a rough cut of the new movie, "The Sheikh and I," for his Lang contemporary cinema class, his lawyer in tow.
“The Sheikh and I” is a wholly remarkable film. Instead of an hour-long piece for a biennial, unlikely to be seen much again, Zahedi has wrested from the experience a deeply layered and involving piece of filmmaking. It is a documentary, in a way, about the Emirates. It’s also an affecting personal testimonial: some of the film’s most memorable scenes concern his young son’s time in Sharjah. And it’s a playful postmodern meta-narrative about filmmaking.
Zahedi has talked in multiple venues, most notably the 2001 Richard Linklater movie “Waking Life,” about the “holy moment”: André Bazin’s idea that filmmaking at its best is a transcendental — and religious — phenomenon. Film is Zahedi’s religion, and one he takes seriously.
“Filmmaking is a release for me, and it’s hugely important to me personally,” he said. “Nothing irritates me more than people getting in the way of my movies.”
The United Arab Emirates comes across, then, as a place specifically designed to frustrate the director. Over the course of the movie, Zahedi systematically fails to be able to practice his religion, stymied by officials, unwilling participants, and a host of cultural conventions.
“The Sheikh and I”’s true value is not simply that it says disparaging, and often true, things about the Emirates — for example, that racism is a widespread problem. The problem the film poses to the Emir is precisely that it shows that no one is allowed to say that racism is a problem.
As a Palestinian biennial employee says in the movie, in countries with no freedom of speech, “no one is allowed to say there is no freedom of speech.”
But for all of the remarkable things “The Sheikh and I” has to say about life in the Gulf states, the film took a toll on many of the people it touched. Perhaps the most important question the movie poses to its viewers: What is the ethical responsibility of an artist operating in an authoritarian state?
First, Zahedi employed dozens of Sharjah residents — from all different backgrounds — to act as extras in his movie, and he talked to a great many people about life in the Emirates.
Now that the film is known to the government, Zahedi and his American assistants are safely overseas. But the impact on the others of taking part in what is seen by the authorities as a blasphemous and treasonous venture is unclear. At the very least, many involved feel personally betrayed.
“They’re all furious,” Zahedi said. The director added that he was surprised by the hostile feedback he received from some of the film’s participants.
Rasha Salti, the curator who originally invited Zahedi to take part in the biennial, is troubled by the effect the movie has had on its participants.
“Caveh never realized how many people's feelings he hurt in Sharjah,” she said in an email. “He never wanted to acknowledge that they felt manipulated and betrayed by him.”
Zahedi also said that he doesn’t know what has happened to any of the people he filmed in the movie. He said he has been advised not to try to contact them, as his emails would likely be read by the authorities.
Some actors are more vulnerable than others. Of particular concern to Zahedi — and to the viewer — is a Pakistani migrant who serves as Zahedi’s driver. The driver is the subject of when describing the pervasive racism in the Emirates, and he also takes part in the scenes involving the kidnapping of the fake Sheik.
But others stand to be negatively affected, as well. In one scene that is difficult to watch, one of the foundation employees tries to warn Zahedi against using an actor to portray Sheik Qasimi while being surreptitiously recorded by the crew. The employee proceeds to give his most damning indictments of life in the Emirates. Zahedi said his cameraman misunderstood the order to stop recording — but in the working cut he showed, the footage remained.
Salti remains immensely frustrated and regretful about the situation.
“I carry the burden of failure that the invitation to Caveh eventually turned out to be,” she said. “I regretted every moment I trusted Caveh.”
Yet even though “The Sheikh and I” is at times uncomfortable to watch, it’s impossible to avert your eyes.
While Zahedi and his crew were in Sharjah that winter, protests in Tunisia and Algeria, ostensibly triggered by rising food prices, were picking up pace and attracting scattered media attention in the west. After they had returned to the States, the Arab Spring came into full bloom.
The Gulf states have proved mostly impervious to the wave of popular protests. With indefatigable reserves of foreign currency, the Emirates have been able to attract high-profile Western cultural institutions — a branch of the Guggenheim, the Louvre, an NYU campus in Abu Dhabi — while masking the autocracy within. Zahedi’s movie poses an excellent and well-timed challenge to the hollow, fake openness of the Gulf States.
Zahedi is confident that he made the right decisions, and said he has received positive feedback from other filmmakers.
Alan Berliner, the documentary filmmaker, told Zahedi that “you did everything you were supposed to do as an artist. The fact that they banned it just means you hit the bulls eye.”
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