The Sheik and I: A Lost Opportunity
To watch this film is only to watch a lost opportunity. And the lost opportunity is by no means small, which is why the film is so painful to watch. The pain begins after 15 minutes (during a meeting in a New York City restaurant between the film's director, Caveh Zahedi, and a programmer of an Arab arts festival, Rasha Salti) and grows and grows. By the time you are halfway through, your head and heart throb like a toe that has been crushed by an anvil. The last 35 minutes of the film are basically unwatchable.
What was the director thinking? Why couldn't he see that he was making something even worse than a bad film? Zahedi, an American Iranian, is smart enough; he has made a number of notable features (the most recent and remarkable of which is I Am a Sex Addict), he studied philosophy at an Ivy League school, and he knows his Nietzsche and Foucault. But why didn't a single one of his educated thoughts tell him that his film wasn't mocking American stereotypes of Arabs but simply, obviously, cruelly mocking Arabs?
Also, why did he not see the invitation he received from Sharjah (an emirate in the United Arab Emirates) to make a film about "subversion" for the Sharjah Biennial as a chance not only to open another world that he, an isolated Westerner, had never heard of, but also to question or wonder in any meaningful or profound way why its leader and the programmers of this obscure art festival would be interested in the subject of subversion? And why did they select him, an experimental American artist, to make such a film in the first place? Yes, there were constraints to his creative freedom (no frontal nudity, can't mock the prophet Muhammad, can't make fun of the Sheik of Sharjah), but all else was open to him: money, time, location.
And with this freedom, with this incredible opportunity to build a strange or unexpected bridge between two seemingly dissimilar worlds and moral systems, all Zahedi could do is run around the city with a small crew, his boy, and his batty partner, trying to make a low-budget mockumentary about Arabs kidnapping Westerners, Arabs being bad, Arabs praying stupidly and being silly and fearful of their powerful leaders. The Arabs Zahedi encounters know what he is up to and don't want to be in his movie, but he insists and insists that they wear burkas, pray, hold guns... It's just too painful. Northwest Film Forum, Nov 16–21.