The Sheik, Mohammed and me me me

Caveh Zavedi’s button-pushing doc The Sheik and I screens tonight as part of RIDM’s Docville series.

The Sheik and I

The Sheik and I documents a project by American independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi. Commissioned to make a film for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial  on the subject of “art as a subversive act,” Zahedi (the son of Iranian immigrants) is told that there are absolutely no constraints on him. After he pushes the curators to come clean, they concede that under no circumstances is he to depict the prophet Mohammed or make fun of the UAE’s Sheik of Sharjah.

Establishing himself as a court jester of sorts (even changing the colour of his shirt several times on camera during the film’s introduction), Zahedi immediately latches onto what he is not supposed to film. He gathers together a skeleton crew of hipster NYC film assistants, along with his wife and three-year-old son, and heads off to Sharjah, determined to document what happens when an ignorant American is let loose in the Middle East to haplessly recruit unassuming locals and convince them to reenact his zany, often paranoid fantasies that have been reinforced by clichéd Hollywood tropes.

Sure enough, his film-within-a-film about burqa-wearing men kidnapping his son, or alternately, kidnapping the Sheik of Sharjah, and his recruitment of local Indian youth to perform a Bollywood choreography to the Muslim prayer ritual, do ruffle feathers, and his film is banned, not only by the biennial, but by the state itself.

The third act is a much more interesting, layered document of Zahedi’s own moral struggle with the project, once his cavalier adhesion to freedom of speech at all costs comes up against the very real possibility that the Arab locals who participated in his imaginary narrative could face very real punishment.

But that’s the major problem with this film: it is all about Zahedi from the get-go. The very fact that even the director’s most fleeting flight of fancy becomes visually actualized, sometimes only in a three-second snippet, firmly establishes the self-centred perspective.

Hiding behind a veil of comedy (excuse the very bad pun), Zahedi does indeed manage to offend — not just his Islamic counterparts, but me, as a Western viewer, cringing at his refusal to employ a translator while travelling in the UAE and his insistence on instead finding humour in what’s lost in translation on the part of his international hosts, at their expense.

In one telling scene, Zahedi fumbles around while trying to fit a burqa on a local man wearing glasses. What better analogy could be applied to this entire film than an American in the Middle East making the locals feel uncomfortable? ■

The Sheik and I has its Quebec premiere as part of RIDM’s Docville series, followed by a Q&A with director Caveh Zahedi via Skype at Cinéma Excentris (3536 St-Laurent) tonight, Thursday, April 25, 7 p.m., $11/$8.50 students and seniors