Last month I posted the first part of my interview with Caveh Zahedi, director of the very controversial documentary The Sheik and I (see my review at Movies.com). In that installment I focused on the film’s controversy and apparent censorship, but when I talked with Zahedi at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March we talked about more than the criticisms of his latest work.
We also discussed the making of the film from its inception as an invitational assignment to create a subversive film in and about the Emirate of Sharjah to the reflexive satire that it became, plus additional talk of hypocrisy, performance, religion, the falsity of documentary, his critics and the difficulty of classifying his movies. In this post you can read that half of the conversation.
Tonight The Sheik and I will make its New York City debut with an outdoor Rooftop Films screening at the Automotive High School in Brooklyn (tickets include an open bar after party, where I’m sure a lot of heated discussions will occur). The film will next play in the UK at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 16th. Hopefully more places will take a chance on this provocative, funny, insightful doc after that.
When you set out to make the film, you could have done research about Sharjah but you decided not to in order to go there blindly, right?
I did a little research, but frankly I was really busy. I teach full time. I have a kid. I didn’t have time to do all this research on Sharjah. And because my idea was to sort of play it by ear I didn’t need research. I was going to just go there and start shooting and see what happens. I didn’t feel like doing research was essential to the project.
They weren’t expecting a big feature production then?
They commissioned a short. When I met with Rasha [Salti, of the Sharjah Art Foundation] — and I filmed this but didn’t include it in the film, but maybe I should — I said to her, “I really would like to make a feature. I don’t care about making a short. Can I make my own feature and just give you guys a short?” And she said, “Yes, of course.” And I said, “What if you don’t like something that’s in the short?” She said, “Well, then, we’ll probably censor it, for the short, but you wouldn’t have to censor it for your feature. Just the film we show. But you’re free to do whatever for yourself and to show it wherever you want in the world.”
So that was always my assumption, that I was making a feature, really. I was just making a short for them as a contractual obligation. And they could show it or not show it, or censor or not censor it. I didn’t care that much. I was hoping they wouldn’t censor it, but if they did I would still have my feature that I was going to show. It was only when they decided to ban the short and threaten me with a cease and desist order to not show the feature anywhere in the world that I got really pissed off. Because that wasn’t the original deal.
By the end of the film it seems like you had intended for everything to be as it ended up. It has such a perfect meta structure and there’s such a perfect irony to it. And it proves itself in the end. Was this really not the case? Did you come home and figure out the film, what it was all about, and then script the external narrative and narration around it?
I didn’t script it. I just turned on the camera and started talking about what had happened. And I used that as the narration. But I remember when it got banned I called Alan Berliner and he said, “You hit the bulls-eye. That was a perfect score. You couldn’t have gotten a better response to your project.” And I could see he was right on some levels. I succeeded. Jackpot. At the same time, there was this fatwa death threat concern. And the concern for the people in the movie that kept it from being a perfect bull-seye. So the whole film became about that. How do I solve this problem?
But two things you admit to loving are reflexivity, and it became a whole lot more reflexive in the end, and being provocative, which again it became more so in the end. Were neither of these aspects of the film on your mind from the beginning? Didn’t you want to go there and rock the boat from the beginning?
I always try to rock the boat as much as I can, no matter what I’m doing. But when the commission is to do art as a subversive act, that’s the theme, I felt like I was given carte blanche to rock the boat and even obligated to rock the boat as much as I could.
Did you want to rock the boat even more because the commission was actually a lie?
Yeah. When you say, “I want you to rock the boat, but not really, let’s just pretend to rock the boat,” that makes me want to rock it more. Yeah. I hate hypocrisy.
You brought up hypocrisy before in talking about people who hate your film I Am a Sex Addict. That seems the case in this country with sexual persecution in general, often, that it comes from people who are just uncomfortable with or scared of admitting their own urges.
And they hide their own urges. They don’t want anyone to know because they think it’s shameful. So when someone shows it they have to act all indignant. Even if they’re doing the same thing or worse in secret.
I remember when I was young and getting into sexual transgression stuff, pornography or whatever, I went to see a film with my wife at the time. It was the film Star 80, about a Playboy centerfold who was murdered by some guy. She went out with Peter Bogdanovich, and this guy who was obsessed with her murdered her. It was a little prurient. It had all these sexually titillating things. And I think I was sexually titillated by the movie.
But because I was trying to hide this part of myself, as I was with my wife, I got up and left, and I said, “This is terrible. I hate this movie. It’s really sexist.” But I really kinda liked the movie. I mean, I didn’t think it was that great a movie, but I was getting turned on by it. And I had to pretend that I wasn’t. I think it’s that same impulse.
That’s like how I watch the film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and feel bad for enjoying seeing Delphine Seyrig naked in the tub because it’s supposed to be a feminist film.
There’s a midnight movie playing SXSW that’s supposed to be feminist but it’s made by a guy, and it bothered me in the same way people are bothered with your stereotyping of Americans. He’s self-stereotyping men as being awful rapists and abusers but then stereotyping all women as being victims. I don’t think it’s helping. But to show cool Arabs, or a balance of good and bad, is better for breaking stereotypes.
Right, for a true piece rather than vindictive piece. But most people who watch the film are very sympathetic to the Arabs in the film. They’re very likable. I think most people understand the dilemmas that they’re in and the pressures that they’re under, and while there’s hypocrisy at work and fear and maybe not what an American would think is the right thing to do, they’re never portrayed as inhuman or unsympathetic in any way. In fact, if anyone’s unsympathetic it’s me. I’m the most unsympathetic person in the movie. I’m the one with the most flaws revealed.
Is that something that you’re conscious of while you’re making the film?
It’s something I’m conscious of when I’m editing the film but not while I’m making it exactly. When I’m editing it I’m conscious of what to include and exclude, and I actually take a lot of it out, not because I want to appear better than I am, but because people are so judgmental. The little, teeny moments of irritation or negligence or thoughtlessness, people get really really down on my character, and it makes them not invested in the story. I have to take some stuff out just to keep them from walking out. I love those scenes where I’m being insensitive because it’s true.
But you’re not doing that intentionally as a character.
To align yourself with “the insensitive American” is more an admission that you’re a flawed person than it is a projection. You’re not going there and trying to be Sacha Baron Cohen and make a character that’s more insensitive than you are.
Right. No, it’s different. At the same time, I am a comic character. I think of what I do as like a court jester. I’m trying to make fun of power. It’s me, but it’s me with a jester’s hat on. Maybe it’s not quite as sensitive or thoughtful as I would be in an interview, but I’m trying to say something. The person who comes out is a performative person. But it’s not a fake person. It’s not a constructed character.
I was in a documentary once, back when I was in a band, and when I look at it now I think, that’s not me. I was trying hard to be cool or something for the camera. It wasn’t conscious. And that’s certainly something that occurs at times with documentary subjects.
Most people, I think, try to be cool on camera. That’s my first impulse.
Which is a form of cool. Or smart. I think I’ve been in my films so much that I sort of have a sense of how things come off. So I don’t think I try to do that so much. But everyone is always performing on some level. I’m performing now, you’re performing now, you’re performing when the camera’s on, you’re performing when you’re in a band, you’re performing when you’re with your friends. There’s no such thing as non-performing. Maybe when you’re alone at your house you’re not performing.
Oh, I perform when I’m alone.
Yeah, me too! Even when you’re alone you’re performing. You’re performing to yourself some idea of who you are or want to be. Whether the camera’s on or not, it’s just capturing performance. Some people might be more self-conscious because there’s a camera on or because somebody’s watching them or listening to them. There’s still an image of yourself that you’re trying to project at all times. I think the less you can do that, the more attractive it is, whether you’re in a movie or in real life.
Your films are described as hybrids, not just straight documentaries. Do you think this film is a documentary or a mix?
I’m not that interested in those categories, personally. Obviously it’s a mix, and it’s a documentary. It’s a documentary about trying to make a film, which is not a documentary. But the film that’s not a documentary that I’m trying to make isn’t really the film that I’m trying to make. I’m really trying to make the documentary about trying to make that film. I don’t know what to call it. Hybrid sounds good.
Audiences understand that a film is fake. Whether it’s a documentary or a fiction film, it’s fake. Why not bring in that awareness and play with it or explore it or acknowledge it? This is a constructed, edited document of something that has fictional elements. Every film is that. I actually find traditional fiction filmmaking and traditional documentary filmmaking kinda boring. Because they don’t address that. There are all these assumptions that you have to go along with that, to me, seem very tired.
So you trust that viewers understand that all documentaries are fake?
I think so.
I think, and this isn’t the fault of the audience, that there is some expectation for documentaries to be real, because many filmmakers also mean for them to be real. It kind of ruins other documentaries that aren’t meant to be so trusted, that aren’t intended to be the straight facts about some subject.
Your point is well taken, and I think there are more sophisticated viewers and less sophisticated viewers. I think my films require a sophisticated viewer, to be fully appreciated. But you make films for your own level of intelligence and consciousness. I make films for people who are as sophisticated in their perceptions of art and documentary and truth and fiction as I am. I make a film that I would want to see. And this is a film that I would want to see.
Should people take this film seriously? On the one hand, it’s not to be taken seriously as a document of reality, and it’s definitely a comedy so there’s some lack of seriousness with that, but on the other hand it’s an important film, or an important work of art, as you say. So how does that balance come about for you, and does it work for the audience?
For sophisticated viewers maybe. What’s disturbing to me is a programmer like Thom Powers, who is a sophisticated viewer, supposedly, who’s programming documentaries as a professional practice, can’t see that this is a serious work of art. To me, that’s weird.
You know the film Irreversible by Gasper Noe? It’s really disturbing. Very disturbing. And it’s an incredibly brilliantly directed movie. Morally repugnant. Arguably. You could argue that it’s not, that it’s a criticism of rape or whatever you want to say. There’s something about it that I don’t like. Yet I would never say it’s not a work of art, or a masterful work of art. It really is, it’s just not my cup of tea on some level, spiritually or something.
I would be fine with people saying, “I’m against something about it, but I can see the skill or the artistry.” But a lot of people can’t even see that. Like this review by Matt Goldberg, his thing is that the film is badly made and I have no talent and stuff. That’s just not accurate. It’s not badly made. It’s very well made. That you can’t see that, again, is just a lack of sophistication. It’s like somebody saying Picasso can’t draw. He can draw. He just chooses to do it that way.
You can hate everything your film stands for but at least appreciate the structure and how it’s made. I find people miss that with a number of filmmakers, especially Lars von Trier, who you said is your favorite director. Why is that?
I think I’m a pretty serious person, at some deep level. But the comedy is almost essential to the seriousness somehow. I’m not sure what that’s about. To me they seem not at all at odds. Von Trier is interesting because he’s not really that comic. His films aren’t that funny.
He thinks they’re funny.
Yeah. He thinks they’re funny, and there’s a certain kind of dark humor to them, sure. But they’re not the kind of films where you laugh out loud. Whereas mine are. So it’s a very different approach. I actually think he’s great. I would kiss his feet. I worship him so much. I admire him so much. I think that seriousness makes people take him seriously, in the way my films don’t get taken seriously. And I think what I’m doing is just as serious. It’s just on a different register.
Do you think the film could ever reach viewers in some underground places in Sarjah?
Well the Internet is blocked in Sarjah, so I’m not even sure how it would work. I’m sure eventually it will get out in the black market and some way people will find it. You just can’t censor content. It doesn’t work. Eventually everything will get out. It’s just a matter of time. So the reactionary forces that try to block information are doomed. They’re always going to lose that battle.
In America the way censorship works has to do with consumer capitalism. People don’t want to see films like this because they don’t have any stars in them or there isn’t any sex in them. The things that make people want to things aren’t in the film. That’s the censorship of our system really. It’s not someone saying you can’t show this, it’s a system that maximizes profit and requires a certain financial investment and things to happen and if you don’t fit into those models, forget it, you’re not going to get your work seen very widely. But you can be seen a little bit, for those who are interested. And that’s a better system than one where it is controlled by somebody who says, “You can’t see this, because I don’t want you to.”
If somehow bootlegs ended up in Sharjah, would that go against your contract or is that not your fault?
I don’t think that’s my fault. I’m not showing it.
But maybe not a lot of people there would even want it or get what you’re doing.
I’m sure there are some people who would get it and some people who wouldn’t, just like anywhere else.
There were some people who got it when you were there, right?
I would say nobody got what I was doing when I was there. Nobody at all. Well, I think Haig got it, but I think he’s the only one.
Yazan seemed like he had a sense of humor or was at least enjoying himself.
He does. He was a great guy. But he was scared. I think he was very sympathetic to my attitude. I think for him, he said, “Don’t film this,” and I filmed it anyway, and for him that was crossing a line.
I like that you address the complicated ethical issue of when people say “don’t film this,” that it can mean different things.
He was an employee of the Sharjah Foundation, and I was a person trying to make a film about the Sharjah Foundation, so our agendas were opposed. I was trying to show as much as I could behind the scenes, and as someone who worked for them he was trying to hide what was going on behind the scenes.
I strongly believe that humor is one of the most important tools we have in moving toward peace with one another, but unfortunately not everyone has the same sense of humor. The people of Sharjah must have some sense of humor that probably just doesn’t connect with our own.
Yeah, they must. But they had no sense of humor about certain things, clearly. It’s like desecrating the flag. To me, why not? There are plenty of reasons to desecrate the flag, but some people find that offensive. They don’t find it amusing. To me, it’s completely fair game. The flag has certain connotations and if you have a problem with some of the things it connotes, why not desecrate it? Burn on it, piss on it, whatever you want to do. It’s okay with me.
And at a certain age I probably would have wanted to do that. But I’m older. I don’t need to do that right now. I will defend someone’s right to do that. But there are people who don’t find that okay and don’t find it remotely amusing. I just think they’re taking themselves too seriously.
Someone was saying to me today, “Islam needs to get a sense of humor about itself.” It can survive humor. It can survive criticism. If there is something there that is really profound and true, it’s going to be fine. It doesn’t have to defend itself with every joke. Christianity used to take itself very seriously and now it’s okay. Make fun of Jesus, go ahead. Jesus can handle it. People can still be into Jesus even if some people make jokes about him. That’s just such a healthier approach.
It’s inevitable that that’s where Islam is going to have to go. It’s just not there yet, and the question is how long will it take to get there. And can the people who actually are Muslim and believe in the value of Islam, can they see the value of fighting the forces of reaction within Islam who insist that this is off limits for humor? I think a priest who can make a Jesus joke is a much more attractive priest than one who can’t laugh at a Jesus joke.
So you’re fine with very religious people and orthodox followers who devote their entire life to the Bible if they can still take a joke?
I’m against it. I’m against orthodoxy. As long as there’s something they get from doing that, that’s powerful. But it just seems wrong to me. They’re so separate. And there are so many problems. Those guys are sexually repressed and get into all kinds of kinky stuff and there’s all kinds of weird shit in those communities. There’s something wrong with a religion that’s 2000 years old and that people are trying to apply ideas from 2000 or 3000 years ago today. It doesn’t work. It’s such a denial of the need for constant change and reinvention.
Would you have more respect for some of those religions if they didn’t have an effect on other people, if they just wanted to pray all day and worship and believe all that and were indeed separate but not restrictive?
There is an antidote in Islam to some of the problems with modernity. Our pace of life is too fast, we’re too crassly materialistic, we don’t value important things like family, dignity and honor. Religions are a real antidote to something problematic with non-religion. Let’s just say consumer capitalism is the “other.” In that sense there is something really positive about them and important about them. At the same time, you can have those antidotes without all the restrictions and without the moralism and without the intolerance. You could say, “People are too materialistic. That’s not going to get you happiness. What’s really going to get you happiness is close relationships with people and kindness and love.” That’s a good religion.
Also, any religion that says, “This is the only way, and if you don’t follow this one you’re a sinner or you’re damned or you’re an infidel,” fuck you. There are an infinite number of paths toward God, and I believe there are an infinite number of individual paths towards God. Everybody needs to find their own path towards God. To say, “You have to do this thing like other people do or have done,” is to basically repress the human individual and their uniqueness. We’re all unique for a reason. God made us unique for a reason.
I think we all have our own obligation to find our own way that fits for us. There are things that you can see and admire and take to heart but it’s got to be cobbled together by yourself, the things that work for you. It can’t be this entire system and hope it fits and if not good luck, there’s something wrong with you. This is what all orthodoxies do, they force these people into these very rigid situations. Sure it’s good to have a Sabbath and take a day off. I wish I took a day off a week. I don’t. I would like that. I’m not going to also do all the other rituals and wear the heavy black thing in the summer. That’s ridiculous.
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