Dinner with Caveh by E.A. Ireland

Caveh Zahedi chats about pools and poetry, the analogy of marriage and yoga, and his controversial recent film The Sheik and I.

Video edited by Judith Shimer.

Late last November, I invited Caveh Zahedi to my apartment to discuss his films. Over the last 20 years or so, in films such as I Don’t Hate Las Vegas AnymoreIn the Bathtub of the World and I Am a Sex Addict, Caveh has used filmmaking as his vehicle for navigating the turbid currents of contemporary life.

His most recent film, The Sheik and I, has a complicated history that I will try to avoid giving away, except to say that for a while legal complications made it uncertain whether the film would ever be released. With legal obstacles cleared and a distribution contract secured, a second controversy was set off when Mr. Thom Powers, programmer of the documentary component of Toronto International Film Festival and “a powerhouse in the documentary film world,” attempted to persuade his colleagues on the film festival circuit not to screen The Sheik and I. The irony that a film dealing with the issue of official censorship abroad should stand threatened with unofficial censorship at home, all on account of one influential individual, did not go unappreciated.

The controversy has tended to emphasize the provocative quality that some see in Caveh’s work in general. I think that the provocation is less the intended goal than a by-product or secondary effect of something more fundamental to his approach as a filmmaker—and that was the very thing that interests me most. When I invited him to come and do this interview, I wanted to talk, more or less, about the way he balanced thought and contingencies, to make films that cling to the details of everyday life without succumbing to banality or cheapness. To paraphrase a point he makes at the outset of the video: if there is a unifying aesthetic principle to be found in his work, it is the principle of “I-don’t-know-ness.” At another point he spoke of “letting reality into the frame,” in order for a film to capture the complexity of reality.

Even though—as I hope you will take the time to see for yourself—the controversy did not figure into the interview, this last point about Caveh’s approach is worth bearing in mind if you decide to watch The Sheik and I. I noted that Mr. Powers referred insistently to Caveh’s admittedly limited familiarity with the Emirate of Sharjah. Nowadays, it seems the proper thing to do if you are going to make a film that touches even nominally on a foreign culture, is to bone up on information, gain a mastery of the material, become familiar with the foreign culture’s linguistic heritage, political history, ways of dress, e.g. Affleck’s hair in Argo. Decorum substitutes information for sympathy. I remember when Seal released the song “Kiss from a Rose” as part of the soundtrack to Batman Forever and became a great celebrity: soon a lot of people suddenly knew something about Lupus, as though knowing what a condition is makes you more compassionate for someone who is afflicted with it. And so people gradually lose sight of their own ignorance and folly, the only reliable source of compassion. Watching The Sheik and I, one feels a close involvement in the gradual discovery of the terrifying precariousness that characterizes the life of a guest worker; in a sense, this horror, more familiar instances of which our indomitable powers of self-denial have protected us from, is made new. This is not to say that The Sheik and I is a film about political morality, but one of the virtues of Caveh’s approach to making films is that it may shed light in unanticipated places.

Over the course of the interview we discussed pools and poetry; the analogy of marriage and yoga; his growing control over the way he presents himself in his film; and his desire to make fictional films, to work with actors. My hope was to discover at least a little about the attitude and ideas that structure his approach to his work, to get a sense of how he thinks about the things that he does.

For more on Caveh Zahedi, visit his website.

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