is a film the Sheik of Sharjah does not want you to see. In the Emirate of Sharjah, he has the first
and final say on everything. A self-styled
scholar, he has published tracts like The
Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. If
ever there was someone in need of a thorough mocking, it would probably be him,
but don’t tell that to the Sharjah Art Foundation. Why yes, the Sheik happens to be their
primary patron. However, the issues Iranian-American
filmmaker Caveh Zahedi encountered while filming a commission for the Sharjah
Biennial cut deeper than the merely economic.
He documented his outrageous yet chilling misadventures in The Sheik and I (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in Brooklyn.
the Sharjah Biennial was asking for it.
They recruited Zahedi, told him what great fans they were of his
appropriately titled I Am a Sex Addict,
proclaimed the theme of the Biennial was “art as a subversive act” or some such
artspeak, and assured him nothing was off limits, except the Sheik. Talk about planting a seed. Granted, they also said no frontal nudity and
no mocking the prophet, constraints Zahedi thought he could easily abide
by. The Sheik just got in his head.
his wife and young son in tow, Zahedi quixotically sets off on a Roger and Me quest to get the Sheik to
play himself in his Biennial film. He
intends to blend documentary and fictional narrative in a way that will mock
American stereotypes about the Middle East.
However, he cannot ignore the way his requests freak out everyone around
him. They might say art is a subversive
act, but nobody seems to mean it. To his
credit, Zahedi never ignores this hypocrisy or the harsh facts of everyday life
for migrant workers in the UAE.
Zahedi conduct himself rather recklessly at times? Probably.
However, charges that he endangered people’s lives might be technically
true but completely unfair. To be
invited to make a film in a closed, repressive society is a rare
opportunity. To make a puff piece would
completely squander that prospect and betray any notions of artistic or
journalistic integrity one might hold.
Zahedi duly holds up a mirror to the UAE society. It is not his fault if what he sees is dirty,
dangerous, and decidedly undemocratic.
the important thing to keep in mind about Sheik
and I is that it is a really funny movie.
The sarcastic yet weirdly guileless Zahedi serves as the perfect
everyman-commentator on the bizarre deceit and denial going on around him. He also stands his ground quite admirably
down the stretch, especially when the dreaded b-word comes out: “blasphemy.” Indeed, it is rather telling when a playful
dance involving Indian street children and Islamic prayers becomes the stuff of
a potential fatwa (no joke). Had he
staged a similar number incorporating Catholic rituals, the Pope probably would
have found it cute.
Truly packed with revealing scenes, Zahedi clearly
captured more than anyone realized at the time and what he did not record, he
recreates with some South Park-ish
animated sequences. Diehard doc watchers
will also enjoy the brief but amusing appearances by Zahedi friend and advisor
Alan Berliner. With a third act
explosion of irony, The Sheik and I absolutely
must be seen to be believed. Worthy of
being screened with Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador, Zahedi’s docu-provocation is very highly recommended when it
opens this Friday (12/7) at Videology in Brooklyn.
Labels: Caveh Zahedi, Documentary, Sheik of Sharjah