Editor’s note by Susan Gerhard: With The Sheik and I, a film the San Francisco International Film Festival calls a “thoughtful, humorous, often uncomfortable documentary,” Caveh Zahedi has produced his most accomplished and controversial piece to date. As told in this film, curators for the Sharjah Biennial had decided on the theme of “art as a subversive act,” state they are interested in “treason,” “collaboration,” and “conspiracy,” claim familiarity with previous work by Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict, In the Bathtub of the World, and A Little Stiff are a few titles)—and still commission a piece from him for the show. When Zahedi asks if there are any “constraints” on his project, he’s given a basic “no,” although the list of exceptions (beginning with one to keep the Sheik of Sharjah himself out of it) grows to the point of absurdity. If you know Zahedi’s work, you would expect that he would create a self-reflexive, somewhat confessional narrative story that would indeed tickle all available taboos.
As I wrote when I saw the film at South by Southwest this year, the surprise is not in how far Zahedi goes to encounter said “taboos,” but in just how little he needs to do to stir up trouble in doing so. His style is less ugly American than otherworldy observer; the mood was, to me, very Jacques Tati, with physical comedy-infused refraction/reflection on the clashing of contemporary cultures before him. What were his acts of treason? Zahedi organized a small dance number in a museum; created a fictional hijacking for a fictional film; recorded a citizen saying the government might be racist; and choreographed a group of children kicking off their shoes while praying. Seemingly every action taken by the director is questioned by his funders in a ridiculously no-win situation Zahedi was clearly savvy enough to catch onto early.
Positive reviews from key corners of the press (Indiewire, for starters) would indicate many got Zahedi’s humorous approach; yet fireworks in audience Q&As after the film screened at SXSW indicate some did not. Zahedi spent a few moments in Austin, Texas, catching up with equally love-hated filmmakers Craig Zobel (Compliance) and Todd Rohal (Nature Calls) whose boundary pushing films—Zobel’s an unsettling drama based on true-story one wishes weren’t, and Rohal’s a comedy that hits some raw notes—at Keyframe’s request. Zobel’s and Zahedi’s films play the San Francisco International Film Festival, which runs through May 3. Below, Zahedi offers a few words on each director to accompany his short interviews.
Todd Rohal, Nature Calls
Zahedi: “I first heard of Todd Rohal because of a film he made, The Guatemalan Handshake, that singer-songwriter Will Oldham acted in. I then met Todd briefly at the Maryland Film Festival, where people whose opinions I respect were raving about his latest film, The Catechism Cataclysm. I invited him to show that film to my class, sight unseen. While watching it, I was delighted by the film’s outlandish and utterly unique sense of humor, combined with a shy seriousness and explicit fascination with religion. We had lunch after the screening, and he regaled me with hilarious stories about the production misadventures on his newest film, Nature Calls. When I learned that his next film was going to premiere at SXSW, I was excited to see it.”
Craig Zobel, Compliance
Zahedi: “I first met Craig Zobel at the party of a producer friend. A year or two later, I ran into him at Sundance where his first feature, The Great World of Sound, was premiering. I was completely won over by the film’s low-key realism, loopy humor, and unflinching critique of the darker reaches of the human psyche and experience. I then ran into him again when I moved to New York and asked him if he would be willing to film me on my birthday for an hour. He agreed. It was a fun hour, for me at any rate. A few months later, I learned from the producer friend at whose party I had first met Craig that she was producing a film of his about a real-life hoax that I had read about and, at one point, had seriously considered making into a film. I was super-excited to see how Craig had handled this incredibly treacherous material and was thrilled to learn that the film would be playing at SXSW.”