SFIFF – The Sheik and I
I must admit, that I’m not familiar with filmmaker Caveh Zahedi’s work, but if The Sheik and I is any indication, his other stuff is worth checking out just for the interesting ideas he broaches. In Sheik, Zahedi turns the camera on himself, like he did in the feature-length documentary I am a Sex Addict where he explored his self-destructive addiction to prostitutes. In Sheik, however, he is hired by the Sheik of Sharjah to create a film for the emirate’s art bienniel. If you’re not familiar, Sharjah is similar to a state in the United Arab Emirates. The film is held together by a post-production narrative provided by Zahedi himself, discussing the events that took place during filming, and how he came to ultimately understand them.
The film begins in a particularly interesting way. Really, it’s Zahedi standing in what appears to be his home office, trying on multiple shirts, and examining himself in an off-screen monitor. There’s a production assistant somewhere off camera offering advice. When Zahedi tries on a red shirt, the assistance says ‘it may be a bit agressive.’ To which Zahedi responds with perhaps a bit of forced bewilderment, ‘aggressive?’ Each shirt looks fine, but Zahedi seemed more interested in somehow, someway, getting a reaction to what his cameras were seeing. This is a pattern you can look forward to throughout the film, but on a much more serious level.
As mentioned, The Sheik and I was originally commissioned to be part of an arts festival celebrating ‘the production of art as a subversive act.’ A strangely provocative subject for a country with a sizable morality police force. To add to the intrigue, Zahedi is virtually guaranteed that he will not be censured in any way. Zahedi has an on-the-go approach to his filmmaking that leaves the cameras rolling nearly all the time. This constant filming occasionally leaves the screen blank, as the cameras’ batteries die, but microphones continue recording. Sometimes these dark screens are filled with animations. From the time he lands in UAE, he films anyone and everyone he sees, and has no difficulty in finding people willing to be in his film, including the chauffeur that picks him up at the airport.
That is, until he begins to mention there will be reenactments of terrorists attacks against the actual Sheik of Sharjah, reenactments of sacred Muslim prayers and dances. He mentions these things casually, and is remarkably surprised when he find out that people are a bit fearful of participating. There’s an interesting mix of fear and excitement in the cast members. They’re interested in the project, but fear very real threats of imprisonment, or retribution against their families, or perhaps losing work visas and facing deportation. Indeed, even the point person from the art council who worshipped at Zahedi’s feet in the beginning, began to tell him his ideas are stupid, and he needs to rethink things drastically.
Zahedi plays the role of the ignorant American throughout the film. He is consistently surprised that the Sheik, for example, won’t allow them to use his daughter’s real home for terrorist scenes. Zahedi is clearly too smart to be playing the ignorant American. He’s playing a provocateur, and in a fortunate (for him) twist of fate, we’re seeing things revealed exactly as he wanted them to. We even get his scene-by-scene commentary. This isn’t to say that the things we’re seeing aren’t real and valid. It should perhaps just be considered carefully produced dramatic reenactments, not the surprise documentary of the festival.
There are a lot of interesting ideas explored by Zahedi here. And it’s wonderful to catch a glimpse into the lives of an 0il-wealthy people who are clearly terrified of a regime with simply too much power over human rights. It’s thrilling to think that while this work was originally commissioned by the Sheik of Sharjah, it was the Sheik who also ended up banning it from his entire country. There’s an ease to Zahedi’s filmmaking that makes watching The Sheik and I both entertaining an thought-provoking. He’s certainly a filmmaker to pay attention to.