Inviting criticism from all corners, Caveh Zahedi tests the limits on freedom of expression in the Middle East with incendiary and arguably irresponsible results in “The Sheik and I,” a cheeky docu-essay about the helmer’s rejected submission to a Mideast art expo. Invited to contribute a work that would “consider the creation of art as a subversive act,” he responded with the weapon most likely to backfire in the conservative Arab emirate: satire. Though he assumes the role of the clueless outsider, Zahedi emerges with a sloppily assembled yet undeniably provocative conversation-starter, of interest to daring fests and specialty distribs.
The trouble starts when one of Zahedi’s fans, Rasha Salti, approaches him about participating in the Sharjah Biennial, a major Middle Eastern art expo she helps to curate, piquing the Iranian-American filmmaker’s imagination by using keywords such as “treason” and “conspiracy” to describe the sort of work they’d like for him to create. Yet if Salti expected a piece that would raise provocative questions without crossing into blasphemy, she was ill prepared for Zahedi, who has often amplified the more abrasive aspects of his personality in pics such as “I Am a Sex Addict,” and who responds to boundaries here the way bulls do to red capes.
Knowing nothing about Sharjah (one of the largest emirates in the UAE), Zahedi presses Salti for input on how far he can go, and receives three guidelines: no frontal nudity, no making fun of the prophet Mohammed, and no making fun of the Sheik of Sharjah. Zahedi pretends to misunderstand the latter two obstructions, deliberately ignoring the obvious warnings that Arabs don’t share Americans’ sense of humor when it comes to parody of their religion or rulers, while practically inviting the sort of fatwa leveled against Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks in 2007.
He flies to Sharjah and begins to improvise a heavily stereotypical short film about a kidnapping, tweaking it to offend once he gets a sense of where the locals’ sensitivities lie. Like Albert Brooks’ far more orderly 2005 feature “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” Zahedi’s controversy-magnet prizes laughs above understanding and frames its culture-clash scenario for Western sensibilities.
As Muslim culture conflicts with modernity in the Middle East, of course it’s absurd for a country that doesn’t guarantee freedom-of-speech protection to commission subversive work (curator Jack Persekian was fired from the biennial when Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil’s installation was deemed blasphemous). Plus, it’s disingenuous for the director to feign surprise that his submission wouldn’t be shown after, say, choreographing a musical number to the Muslim call to prayer.
From the beginning, Zahedi goes out of his way to cross the line, putting Salti in a precarious position by asking her to approach the sheik about making a cameo in his kidnapping scenario — a request that’s all the more reckless, considering that the plan all along has been to create a metafilm about the difficulties of trying to tell certain stories in Sharjah. That stunt may give him a title for his project (which loosely aspires to the sort of performance art Michael Moore practiced in “Roger & Me”), but it could also have serious repercussions for the naively helpful locals who agree to appear in it.
Auds will have to decide whether Zahedi is truly this insensitive or simply playing a character. In several scenes, the helmer uses his son Beckett as a prop, ignoring the boy’s unhappy cries the same way he tunes out anyone trying to interfere with his film.
Yet by enlisting three student interns to serve as his crew (one doubles as Beckett’s babysitter), and allowing them to shoot with no regard for production values, he conveys little sense that the footage matters to begin with. Though it’s been more than 20 years since the helmer made his first feature, “A Little Stiff,” his technique has evolved little in that time. “The Sheik and I” is full of clumsy camerawork and amateur re-enactments (much of it presented through rudimentary animation), structured according to haphazard, stream-of-consciousness logic.
Zahedi originally cut a 40-minute version of this film, minus the verite elements, and submitted it to Salti, who generously noted, “I have a feeling there’s a better film behind it,” before rejecting it from the biennial. At 105 minutes, this festival version feels exhaustingly overlong, and may change still more if the director incorporates the shouting match that broke out between his lawyer and the audience at the pic’s SXSW premiere.