The Sheik and Thom Powers
On December 7th 2012, Caveh Zahedi’s first film in nearly eight years, “The Sheik and I” opens in New York and is available on demand. Even if it weren’t a brilliant, groundbreaking work (which it is), lovers of great independent film would be interested. His last feature, “I Am A Sex Addict,” won the coveted “Best Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You” Gotham award, which led to an IFC release in theaters and on DVD. Respected young filmmakers, like Andrew Bujalski and Lena Dunham, are fans of his autobiographical, personal essay epics, and, generally, you can’t talk about “first-person” documentaries without including him. So one would think that a new film from this legend of the genre, who has been putting himself out there on the screen for over two decades, would be big news in the indie film world. Well, if one man had his way, this film would not have seen the light of day in America. And no, I am not talking about the Sheik of Sharjah.
Something about Caveh Zahedi’s “The Sheik and I” has gotten documentary programmer extraordinaire, Thom Powers, all agitated, compelling him to write (by his own admission) to four different people (one programmer and three journalists) basically telling them that they should think twice about showing or writing positively about this film. Why? According to Mr. Powers, he was concerned about the people in the film and the “possible repercussions for their safety”.
“Wow,” you might be thinking, “what the hell kind of film is this?” Nope, it’s not a botched snuff film. Zahedi was asked by (basically) the government of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, to make a film for their Biennial on the theme of “art as a subversive act.” Yes, there were restrictions, but they commissioned the subject and maker of “I Am A Sex Addict” to make a film that would eventually be shown in their (only very slightly progressive) tightly Muslim country. This is an important fact, I think. Caveh Zahedi didn’t wake up one day and say, “I think I want to go to a Muslim country and mess with them.” He was asked to. He was asked to meditate on the idea of subversive art. So he did. The only problem is he did it there. That’s where the trouble starts… and the fun begins.
It’s also important to know that Zahedi didn’t know much at all about the country before he and his family and crew arrived there to make the movie. So, it’s not like he read about all the hypocrisy that occurs there, or the ‘never spoken of’ lack of freedom of speech, or the racism, and then decided to go there to make an exposé on all that. He went there purposefully clueless, in order to let the film just ‘happen.’ There are many different ways to make a movie. For this one, he wanted to make it up as he went along. Going there with preconceived notions about what he would find might hamper the whole thing. It makes for a certain kind of film that is not interesting unless it is funneled through Zahedi himself. This is important. In no way is this “The Innocence of Muslims”— a pure attack, film-as-weapon. It’s also not a Michael Moore film with an agenda. Despite exposing us to an entire country and culture we may not be aware of, despite making us actually fall in love with most of the people of this country in the film, despite touching on grand ideas about art and freedom and religion, it is still a strictly personal film.
So, to cut to the chase, Zahedi’s film intentionally ventured into the “restricted areas” on purpose, some could argue, recklessly. A number of people in the film were willingly and unwillingly brought there as well. But each violation has a specific purpose that serves the greater point of the film. In short, the film was banned from the biennial and threatened with destruction. Zahedi’s lawyer fought this and won. Now the film can be shown anywhere except Sharjah.
At some point before the movie’s premiere at the SXSW festival, as detailed in a video made about the situation, Zahedi sent the film to documentary programmer Thom Powers. Powers expressed, in an email response to Caveh, his “grave reservations about the film and what [he] considered the disregard that [Zahedi] showed for the people filmed.” The trouble is, by his own admission, he also sent the letter to the programmer for SXSW. Why? Because he “thought the issues were serious enough to warrant further consideration on her part.” Further consideration? In other words, he tried to get the film out of SXSW? “I was not asking anyone to boycott or blacklist the film,” wrote Powers in an email to me when pressed about this. So, Thom Powers was trying to act like the adult in the room, presiding over reckless filmmakers and appeasing programmers? He’s just someone who feels adamant about stepping in and advising programmers and journalists, who saw the film and yet apparently can’t weigh all this for themselves, to think twice about showing and writing favorably about the film, all to keep peace in the Middle East? Really?
Mind you, the prophet Muhammad is mentioned only once, as an illustration of what cannot be talked about. Yes, sure, Sharjah has a real problem with this film, mainly due to the sensitivity of the Sheik, who doesn’t want to be ‘made fun of’ or depicted in any way. And Zahedi totally expects never to be accepted there. But here? In America?
But who is Thom Powers anyway, and why would anyone feel the need to listen to his ‘advice’ about how to handle this film here in the free country of America? In an introduction to an interview with him, Mediashift called him “one of the most influential men in documentary film… Powers is not only the artistic director of DOC NYC, but is a programmer at the Toronto Film Festival, Miami Film Festival, Montclair Film Festival, founder of the NYC documentary screening series, ‘Stranger than Fiction,’ and a curator at SundanceNow.” I asked him, after he posted his defense against Zahedi’s charge of blacklisting, if he had power over the people he wrote to about “The Sheik and I.” He responded, “The answer is none.” Regarding his letter to the programmer of SXSW and to the three journalists, Powers wrote, “None of that correspondence resulted in any change of their positions,” as if the failures of his pleas signify no wrongdoing on his part.
In the video Zahedi made detailing this whole ordeal, he claims that people are “afraid” of Thom Powers. Afraid? Why would they be so unwilling to get on the bad side of “one of the most influential men in documentary film”?! Powers claims, again as if it is some evidence of harmlessness, that this “incident has been thoroughly raked over by other journalists including Violet Lucca of Film Comment who spent a lot of time looking into it in the spring before deciding it wasn’t really a story.” I reached out to Ms. Lucca to ask her if (and if so, why?) she thought it wasn’t really a story. “I never found a ‘smoking gun’ as it were. Everyone, even people who were off the record, said it never happened,” she wrote back. But what is it that never happened? Powers admits writing all these letters to people that were ready to show and support the film, letters with additional ‘context’ presumably to urge them not to. That doesn’t sound like a campaign to you?
If people really are interested in staying on Powers’ good side, and he knows that, and he wrote to them in an attempt to sway their (in the very least) opinions and (in the very worst) decisions about showing the film, does that mean he essentially waged a campaign against this film? Could that be called blacklisting?
I am concerned about all this because I think this film is ground-breaking and important. It’s also just a good, entertaining film. Do I agree with everything that Zahedi does in the film? No. Does it make me uncomfortable often? Yes. But this is why it is important. It is important that a filmmaker whose tactics we might not agree with is able to make and show a film here. And it is also important when that film makes us uncomfortable in interesting and thought provoking ways. For Thom Powers to have not seen this in “The Sheik and I” is the most embarrassing aspect of this whole situation. But that is just my opinion of his opinion. We are both entitled to them. Thom Powers seems like an okay guy. He certainly is intelligent and well respected. He must do his job well. I am sure many filmmakers have him to thank for whatever success they have. But, in regard to this film, and this filmmaker, he is woefully shortsighted. And if such shortsightedness is inherent in someone so apparently powerful in the independent film industry, someone who attempted to use that power, perhaps with his own good intentions, to stop something I consider to be important from even being seen or written about in this country, I think we might have a problem here.
At the end of the Mediashift interview, Powers says, in response to a question asking how filmmakers should interact with programmers, “Programmers circulate like the honeybees in this industry. We’re talking to everyone … definitely don’t alienate the programmer.”
Yeah, I think we have a problem here.
— Peter Rinaldi, December 7th 2012