I always admire people who can talk opening about sex, but in a way that’s really funny and self-aware (i.e. not cringeworthy). It makes the reality of our ever-warped sexualities a lot more bearable. For this reason, last year I fell in love with the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, after seeing his autobiographical film I am Sex Addict. It’s the sort of film that will make you pee your pants laughing, but will also make you gasp, like, “OMG did he really just say that?” Here’s the trailer:
I recommend you watch it. It’s on Netflix. Anyway, last month I got to interview Caveh for Dazed and Confused mag about his amazing new film, The Sheik and I. So cool! You can read the interview below:
American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi is a master provocateur. At 52, Zahedi is best known for his 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 the director as he trips on psychedelic mushrooms, the latter resulting in “divine possession.” His films tend to be profoundly uncomfortable, hysterically funny, and bravely uncensored, all driven by Zahedi, the charming and irreverent madman.
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 the Sheik, who is Sharjah’s absolute ruler and the Biennial’s financier. Zahedi then went on to do precisely what he was forbidden to do, traveling to Sharjah and turning his camera on the Biennial itself, and enlisting the 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 then 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.
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.
People like to be offended by things; it creates the illusion of superiority.
Well that’s how morality works, isn’t it? People love to say, “I disapprove.” But the world is so corrupt at every level that there’s no ethical place to stand. It’s a complicated juggling act–choosing what battles to fight and what laws to break in order to expose what injustices.
Thom Powers, the documentary programer of the Toronto Film Festival, called The Sheik and I “deeply troubling for its breach of documentary ethics and reckless behavior.” That’s a heavy judgment.
Yeah. He compared me to the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who burned the Koran. 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-centered. And he’s worried about people associated with the film getting hurt as a result of it.
But at the end of the film you make it clear that the government of Sharjah, after consideration, stated there would be no consequences for anyone who appeared in your movie, is that right?
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 canon types, anything can happen. But to censor a work of art because somebody crazy might do something seems wrong to me.
What makes the film seemingly commercial is that it’s so funny, and all the antics are done in good humor, almost like a real-life Borat.
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. Other people 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 this 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!”
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But as someone who is trying to create provocative art, don’t you sort of like it when people get pissed off?
That’s true. I’m glad people hate the film.
So is art basically a ‘get out of jail free’ card to do and say whatever you want?
I think art has its own ontology, and so it should have its own set of rules. I think 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.
How does being so honest, especially about sex stuff, affect your relationships with your wife, parents, etc.?
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. Although actually, there was a film I wrote that involved my parents a lot and my mom completely refused to cooperate. And basically it got to the point where I knew that if I made the film my relationship with her would be irrevocably destroyed, and I had to step back and say, “Is it worth it?” My conclusion, in that case, was, “I guess not.”
Did you ever censor yourself?
There was one scene in an early edit of Sex Addict that involved 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, and 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 ghettoized.
What are your opinions on the current start of independent cinema, in this time when cameras are affordable enough that practically anyone can make a movie?
Well, I think everyone is making movies, and that 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 video tapes, 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 going on in filmmaking.
The last film you released was I Am a Sex Addict, in 2006. Why the six year gap?
Well, every single thing I tried to do fell apart. The big one that collapsed was a film I was making as part of a residency at the American Academy in Rome. Crispin Glover, Vincent Gallo and Greta Gerwig had all agreed to act in the film. But then the financier didn’t agree with me on a few things and just pulled the plug suddenly. And meanwhile I had given up my job and my apartment, because my wife and I were planning to move back to Rome to make the movie, and we had a new baby, and then after that happened we spent a whole year living on friend’s couches while I tried to find a job.
What a bummer.
Big bummer. I was depressed for a long time after that.
You have a tendency, in interviews and in your films, to talk about your failures as much as your successes. In a recent interview I did with Lena Dunham (who I know is a big fan of yours), she talked about how she views her own embarrassment as a tool for connection. Do you feel similarly about self-deprecation?
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 pretense is where people really live.
The Sheik and I will be released by Factory 25 on December 7th