Docs at SXSW #2: 'The Sheik and I' is the Scariest Film of the Fest, Onscreen and Off

Docs at SXSW #2: 'The Sheik and I' is the Scariest Film of the Fest, Onscreen and Off

Mar 13, 2012

There was a moment when I actually thought the theater could blow up.

I guess this makes The Sheik and I the scariest film of SXSW, though it will probably go down primarily as the most controversial. Following the premiere screening Sunday night, the Q&A discussion got so heated that I again feared for the safety of people in the room. When someone yells, "you need to put your lawyer on a leash," it seems possible that punches will soon be thrown. Fortunately, for now, nobody has been physically hurt as a result of this movie. That I know of.

What kind of provocation is this? Sheik is the latest from filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict) and it’s a satirical semi-documentary filmed in and slightly mocking of Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, as well the culture and religion of the region. It’s a movie you could associate with the works of Mads Brugger, Larry Charles (sometimes with Sacha Baron Cohen), Morgan Spurlock and maybe Jafar Panahi. Alluding to some of its predecessors, I’ve called it both “This is Also Not a Film” and “The Red Mosque.”

Some of those in the audience Sunday night would question my use of the word “slightly” with regard to the mockery. But the film is not really aimed at Sharjah, Islam or any of the politics or rituals of either, in spite of what it apparently could look like to someone who isn’t paying attention. It’s a film directed at the ignorance of the West, and this includes the very self-aware, very self-reflexive Zahedi, who had never even heard of the place before being asked by the emirate’s arts council to make a film for the Sharjah Biennial.

So with little (revealed) research, he heads over to the Middle East with wife, infant son and a young crew in tow, and they attempt to find the film once they get there. In the process, Zahedi discovers all kinds of offenses, some he perceives as being committed by the government (a dictatorship ruled by the current sheik almost consistently for 40 years), most that the government perceives as being committed by him. And, I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, the project is never finished, as intended anyway. Ultimately it’s a film about the non-making of a film, a la This Is Not a Film and Lost in La Mancha. Politically, it’s more akin to the former.

The commissioned theme was “art as a subversive act,” which seems so ironic that I admit I have -- before, during and since seeing the film -- had my doubts about the film’s validity. No, that’s not the right word. Even if the whole thing is a well-constructed machine that’s eating itself the entire time, it’s still so full of truth that I’m not surprised so many viewers had problems with it. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” was shouted over and over during the Q&A, albeit by that off-the-leash lawyer. However, some of those on the other side of the discussion said the same thing to Zahedi, only in different words.

What has so many outraged is a believed disregard Zahedi appears to have for the safety of his family, crew, audience (there is actually mention in the film of cinemas being blown up for showing it) and especially his actors and subjects, most of them unwitting locals who could have potentially been jailed, deported or worse. The way the film concludes, I trust that everyone is probably not in danger, and I guess that lawyer was on hand at the screening to uphold the reasons why we should accept that it’s a relatively happy ending. And any uncertainty we have is likely due to our own racism, stereotyping, ignorance or whatever, that very common stuff that Zahedi is getting at and playing with here.

The fact the Sheik camera and sound crew were documenting the whole Q&A proves the filmmaker anticipated such antagonism and debate, or at least hoped for it. Without such controversial response the film has less meaning, and no significance. With it, Zahedi comes out as not only having rocked the boat but entirely substantiated for doing so. His point is made by those who question it.

At one point during the post-screening debate, a woman chastised Zahedi for making a film about a place he didn’t adequately get to know beforehand. His defense was that you don’t need to completely know about something to make a film about it. Later another audience member agreed, citing Lars von Trier as someone who has never visited the U.S. yet has no problem making films set here, some rather blindly, many certainly critical of America. Zahedi, unsurprisingly, noted that von Trier is his favorite director. He’s one of mine, too. If one of yours, too, you’ll appreciate The Sheik and I. If not, you may dislike this film, but I think you should see it anyway.

Even if there’s a chance the theater you see it in is blown up.

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