Film Review – The Sheik and I
The beauty of art is that it can take any form or definition. There is a freedom for an artist to convey whatever thoughts or messages they so choose. Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi knows this all too well. His half documentary/half fiction film I Am a Sex Addict (2005) turned the camera on himself, and explored his sexual obsessions in intimate detail. While fascinating, I couldn’t connect with it, because it was so much about Zahedi that perhaps only he can understand it. The same can be said about his latest work, The Sheik and I (2012). Once again, Zahedi takes a premise he knows little about and changes it to tell about his own feelings and thoughts. He tests cultural limitations for the sake of doing it, with his camera securely fastened by his side to capture everything that happens.
Speaking directly into the camera like a confessional, Zahedi leads us through the events that took him from New York City to Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. Curators for the Sharjah Art Foundation had seen his work and asked if he was interested in making a film for them. Commissioned for the intent of presenting art as a “subversive act,” the foundation granted Zahedi freedom to make his project in any way he saw fit—the only caveat being that he would not make fun of the Sheik, the ruler of the country, who also finances the foundation itself. It may have been a smarter idea not to mention that. Instead of backing away from that restriction, Zahedi confronts it face-first. Almost immediately after landing in Sharjah, he begins testing and prodding every cultural and political rule he can, going so far as to even infuriate the very people financing his film.
When you visit a foreign nation, you know there are laws far different than the ones of your native country. Sharjah is strictly religious, with prayers and routines that are held very sacred. In an attempt to understand and even challenge these ideas, Zahedi puts himself and his crew (including his wife and son) into predicaments that can be seen as derogatory and even blasphemous. Instead of taking the more traditional route in exploring a country he knows nothing of, he takes a stream-of-consciousness approach, filming anything his mind can come up with. While taking a cab ride, he has a scary thought of being kidnapped. So what does he do? He has the crew reenact the fantasy, hiring locals from off the street. When he has a strange vision of Sheiks being taken by terrorists, he decides to explore that notion by filming it. When he can’t get in contact with the Sheik of Sharjah, he tries to hire someone to impersonate him.
You see how this can pose as a problem? The nature of Zahedi’s method is seen negatively by members of the community. Culture and religion are nothing to poke fun at, and many accuse Zahedi of being blasphemous and even racist. I have to admit: the guy has some guts. No matter how much people warn him to stop what he’s doing, he plows along diligently, questioning every rule and restraint, and pushing every button imaginable. So what do we have? Zahedi sees himself an artist, and can only express his thoughts the way he knows how to. This is all fine and dandy, but I wonder to what means? He knows what is considered right and wrong, but often seems to go about his business for the sole purpose of being provocative. Art can challenge cultural norms, but his intent gets buried under the weight of his own narcissism. Everything matters only in the way that it affects himself. Even when his wife clearly expresses her fear as the situation expands to a government level, and their young son shows signs of confusion and even hesitation, Zahedi continues on for some semblance of “truth.”
This isn’t to say that he isn’t a good filmmaker. His story has an organic sensibility, as though he is discovering it just as we are. Tangents are followed through, ideas are explored, and collaboration is encouraged. Members of the crew pitch in with their thoughts, and even random strangers have an opportunity to be filmed. No stone is left unturned. I like how Zahedi molds the story, always keeping us guessing and maintaining a light and humorous tone. I even enjoyed the hand-drawn animations that act as substitutes when real life characters aren’t on screen. But after seeing the film, I thought more about Zahedi than the country he was depicting. When it comes down to it, we don’t really learn much of Sarjah (or the Sheik). Rather, we see Zahedi’s frustration when his film is eventually banned, with him possibly facing major legal consequences. He was an American foreigner asking the people of Sarjah: “Why aren’t you more like me?”
It’s one thing to put a piece of yourself into your work; it’s another thing when you become the work. The Sheik and I is really more “I” than it is “Sheik.”
Final Grade: C+