© 2013 Valerie Dionne


sheik and i poster.1Caveh Zahedi gets introduced. As he comes to the front of Olin 1, he says, “I hate talking before movies. So, I’m just going to say that…” and he leaves. As I look around, I notice that I am not the only one who’s smiling. I turn my attention forward as the movie starts, armed and prepped with my notebook and my pencil.

Before I start commenting about the film, a little background is in order. Caveh Zahedi was commissioned to make a film for the Sharjah Art Foundation (in the UAE) to be shown in the Biennial celebration in Sharjah. The theme of the Biennial was “art as a subversive act.” Zahedi was told that he did not have any constraints in making the film except that his film could not have any nudity, could not make fun of Prophet Muhammad or the Sheik of Sharjah. The first 2 conditions were acceptable to him but not the third one. He wanted to make fun of the Sheik a little bit. This was one of the reasons why his film got banned by the Sharjah Art Foundation. The film that was shown to us was a third version of “Sheik and I” which depicts his experience in Sharjah – from his attempt to make the film for the Biennial to the banning of the film.

Truth be told, I liked Zahedi less and less as I kept watching the film. The saying, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” clearly doesn’t apply to Zahedi. From what I understand, the film created the amount of controversy that it did because Zahedi refused to conform to the ways that the people in Sharjah think or are comfortable with and, the people from Sharjah were too scared to come out of their comfort zone and do something that they had never done before. We see examples of conflicts like this all throughout the film.

finalposter2_4For example, Zahedi insisted on depicting the stereotypes related to Middle East in a comical way. At one point, he wanted Yazan, who worked in the art foundation and who was supposed to act in his film, to be dressed in a burqa to kidnap people. At another point, Zahedi wanted to shoot a scene where some kidnappers come to kidnap the sheik but as they hear the call to prayer, they drop their guns to pray. In the film, Zahedi said that he wanted to make the people of Sharjah look cool by comically depicting the stereotypes. What he failed to understand was that the people of Sharjah thought exactly the opposite. They thought that his depictions would reinforce the stereotypes.

It might be because I am a Muslim myself or because I was brought up to respect all religions but I found it very disrespectful when he used the azan (the call for prayer in Islam) as music for a choreographed dance for some children. I am not sure about the other scenes but this scene would have definitely caused my country, Bangladesh to receive the film in the same way that Sharjah had received it.


A scene from the film: Zahedi’s friends dressed in burqa dancing after the women (from Sharjah) who were really supposed to dance refused to do so.

During the discussion, after the screening of the film, Zahedi said that he was trying to see how far he could get with this film without being banned. He said that he did not like hypocrites but isn’t he a hypocrite himself? When asked if he knew what had happened to the actors in the film after he left Sharjah, he did not seem to have a clear answer. He wanted the freedom to depict whatever he wanted to as an artist and yet he did not seem to have much concern about the trouble that the people involved in the film would be in because of his film. The question is that if he does not even know how to ensure the safety of the people working with him, does he really deserve the freedom to do anything he wants?

An interview with Caveh Zahedi about “The Sheik and I” can be found online.