Shane BarnhillSaturday,5 January 2013

The Snap:

The Sheik and I” is a documentary film by director Caveh Zahedi, in which Zahedi highlights the free speech challenges associated with making a movie in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Commissioned by the UAE’s Sharjah Art Foundation to examine “art as a subversive act,” Zahedi’s project — in which he admittedly decides to “wing it” throughout filming — weaves the storyline of a movie with a meta layer of “a movie about making a movie.” The two plots swirl together into an entertaining commentary on free speech rights and cultural differences.

The Download:

I highly recommend that you give “The Sheik and I” a look, although not for the reasons you might expect. More on that in a moment. But first, I’d like to commend Mr. Zahedi for his art and storytelling capabilities, as this movie is both hilarious and thought-provoking at once. Furthermore, Zahedi persevered through legal hurdles and ethical dilemmas — such as potential impacts to the livelihoods of the film’s participants, many of whom expressed reservations about Zahedi documenting their participation — in order to get this film made.

Moreover, I’m a big fan of risk-takers and boundary-pushers. Zahedi is both (and he has the hate mail to prove it). He entered this project well-aware of its potential risks and yet gamely accepted the challenge of his commission, which included limitations on lampooning both the Sheik of Sharjah and the prophet Mohammed. But while Zahedi treads an opaque but thin line regarding the latter, he goes all-out with his attempts to satirize the former.

And that’s where his approach becomes somewhat troubling, at least for me.

As the curators from the Sharjah Art Foundation toss an increasing number of roadblocks in Zahedi’s way as he tackles uncomfortable topics during filming, Zahedi evolves on-camera from an empathetic-yet-determined hero into a culturally-insensitive symbol of jingoism. At one point late in the film, Zahedi — or at least an animated representation of him — literally wraps himself in the Flag as he lectures viewers on the inalienable right of free speech that we Americans prize so dearly.

So how does the movie end? Well, I won’t spoil that for you — although I will say that nobody rides off into the sunset with an “and they all lived happily ever after” subtitle — but I do encourage you to rent the film and find out for yourself. However, I implore you to consider your own biases as you do, and weigh them against an appreciation for the diplomatic balancing act that the Sharjah Art Foundation’s curators walk as they work with Zahedi towards the production of “The Sheik and I.”

Hat Tips:

IMDB, The Sheik And I, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Image Credit: Flickr

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