Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Art, freedom, religion and fun: Caveh Zahedi's THE SHEIK AND I explores 'em all

In its (very) odd way, THE SHEIK AND I -- the new movie from Caveh Zahedi (of I Am a Sex Addict fame) is much like last year's oddity from Jafar Panahi, This Is Not a Film. Except this is the light, fleet, laugh-out-loud version of film-making under dictatorial Muslim rule. And unlike Mr. Panahi, Mr. Zahedi, shown below in his Sheik drag, though of Persian ancestry is an American citizen, as are his crew members, and so he and they don't (yet) risk imprisonment or torture for making their movie.

After viewing the film via link on my computer (a form of movie-going that I don't much enjoy), my companion asked, "What were you watching? I haven't heard you laugh that much in a long time." Well, this is very funny stuff, as anyone who has seen Zahedi's other films will expect. The differ-ence here is that the filmmaker finally has a subject that is timely, important and frightening, yet he approaches it with a near Candide-like quality of the faux naif -- resulting in his best film so far.

The hook: Zahedi is commissioned to make a film for a Middle East Biennial in one of the United Arab Emirates on the theme of "art as a subversive act." Of course there are some restrictions, he is told: among these, no nudity. Yet being a subversive filmmaker, as this guy clearly is (the Arab woman in charge, above, who invites him certainly knows this, as she has seen at least one of his other films), he is bound to subvert. It's his nature.

One of the things that comes to the fore as Zahedi and his crew (above) begin filming is the immense hypocrisy on view in this particular UAE. How much freedom to film can one expect in a little country that clearly has almost no freedom for its citizens? We find out just how little exists as the movie proceeds. Although this is never stated outright, it soon becomes clear that this arrangement is simply meant as some publicity stunt that will allow the Sheik and his emirate to appear democratic and culturally au courant, without really having to do a damned thing toward either goal.

It also becomes clear that hiring Zahedi to make their fake film is perhaps the dumbest thing the Sheik's crew could have done. The little filmmaker is having none of their nonsense. Instead he goes about, not just making fun of the Sheik (as he has been told he cannot do) but of anything and everything that crosses his path, much of which has to do with -- yikes! -- religion and women and racism and law.

How Zahedi does all this -- with such silly charm and a near-total lack of responsibility -- is the movie's ace-in-the-hole. My god, you think, no one could be this clueless. And of course no one could. The filmmaker is a very smart and insidious terrorist of the "art" sort. To say that he wins the battle is a gross understatement -- even if the film he "makes" is never shown in the venue for which it was created. Instead, it's what we are viewing here, and it is, in a word, a humdinger.

If we worry about the citizens of the emirate who cross Zahedi's path, help him, and will perhaps be punished for this, it is clear that the filmmaker also worries about them. He tells us, in fact, what happens to these people -- which is every bit as surprising as the movie itself. It is clear that in the seven years since he made I Am a Sex Addict, the filmmaker has grown up some. He's now married with a son, and we see the wife and the young child in the film. Both appear to be clever and happy, though we wonder at the wife's marvelous patience with her off-the-wall hubby.

The Shiek and I , from Factory 25 and with a running time of 104 minutes, premieres theatrically this Friday, December 7, in New York for a week's run at Brooklyn’s new Videology theater, followed by screenings across the country -- including at Chicago's Siskel Center, Seattle's Northwest Film Forum and Portland Oregon's Clinton Street Theater. Factory 25 is partnering with Fandor -- the online cinema that specializes in showing great independent films and uses its subscription fees to support filmmakers -- to release the film digitally on December 7th.  Factory 25 will also be releasing the film digitally on December 7th via TV VOD, iTunes, Amazon and other digital outlets. Its DVD release is expected in the spring of 2013.

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