The Sheik and I

The Sheik and I


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

Once again Zahedi (I am A Sex Addict) turns the camera on his favourite subject – himself. When commissioned by the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah to make a film about “art as a subversive act” for their Biennial, the provocateur filmmaker was delighted.

The opening is promising – Zahedi is in his office choosing shirts for his trip. “Red? No, too aggressive.” He can't decide what kind of film to make, so decides to just set off with his entourage and see what happens.

When he arrives he is told that there are three things that will not be allowed: frontal nudity, making fun of the Prophet Mohammed and making fun of the Sheik. Previously unaware of the Sheik's existence, Zahedi is now determined to poke fun at him.

He decides to make a film about trying to make a film. Assuming the role of clueless outsider, he sets about recruiting locals to act in it. They are willing, until they learn that the film will be about the Sheik.

There is an absurdity in a country which doesn't allow free speech commissioning subversive work, and a country with a bad human rights record is a legitimate target for satire. But Zahedi comes across as someone whose chief aim is self-promotion. He compares his position to that of Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh. Caveh, you're no Salman Rushdie.

On the plus side, he does know how to entertain, using a mix of animation, captions and archive clips from old Hollywood films which is very funny. He knows when to keep his camera rolling secretly and his playful editing is immensely pleasing. But the joke soon wears thin. His film within a film is sloppily made. Using a crew of student interns, he seems to lose interest in quality or narrative, throwing in anything which might produce a cheap laugh, be it women dancing in burqas or local Indian boys being choreographed to the call to prayer. He seems to have no regard for the safety and wellbeing of those around him, including his two year old son , obviously unhappy at being used as a prop.

When told that his film will be banned, Zahedi assumes the role of champion of free speech, disingenuously seeking to find out why he has been “let down” by those who commissioned him.

The rest of this film becomes an exhaustingly overlong lecture about the rights of the filmmaker which makes far too much use of previously seen captions and poor quality Skype. Of course, his lawyer eventually wins him the right to a screening. And this is a victory for what exactly? Free speech? Or simply the right to let down those people in Sharjah who were willing to help him and put their lives in danger?

Zahedi makes his film even longer by including during the final credits questions and comments from the film's premier showing at SXSW. I found myself in agreement with those who said the film made them feel uncomfortable and were unhappy about the director “basically going there and shitting on” people's sincerely held beliefs. Perhaps it was brave of the director to include this criticism. Or perhaps he is so insensitive that he thinks it makes him look more daring. Either way, I doubt he wanted to produce a bored and fidgety audience, which is what he achieved.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2012
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The Sheik and I packshot
The request for a filmmaker commissioned to make a documentary on subversive art to avoid making fun of the Sheik is asking for trouble.

Director: Caveh Zahedi

Year: 2012

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: United Arab Emirates


Doc/Fest 2012

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