Monday, December 03, 2012

The Sheik and I: Feel the Arts Festival Love

This 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.

Frankly, 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.

With 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.

Does 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.

Nonetheless, 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.