Florida Film Festival: THE SHEIK AND I

By Samir Mathur
Contributing writer
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For all my Film Festival coverage, look for the tag FFF2012

THE SHEIK & I plays in the 21st annual Florida Film Festival tonight (4/16) at 8.30 pm at Regal Winter Park Village and again on Friday (Details)

Caveh Zahedi is an edgy, provocative filmmaker who gets commissioned to make an edgy, provocative film by the Sharjah Biennial, an arts organization in the United Arab Emirates. The instructions are pretty vague, but Zahedi takes a small crew, as well as his wife and young son, to the middle east, to work on... something? He doesn't really have a plan, and tries to figure it out as he goes. The one main rule he's presented with is: you can't insult or make fun of the Sheik of Sharjah. And while this doesn't become his main objective, he's fascinated by this request.

While in the UAE, Zahedi talks many locals into appearing in his film, though several of them make it clear that they are uncomfortable about it and ask to be taken out, or ask at various points for the camera to stop rolling. The central theme here is: however much the powers-that-be want to be seen as cutting-edge and modern, there isn't really freedom of speech in this part of the world. And Zahedi wants to use his position as filmmaker to investigate that, and the more people who stand in his way (police, the arts board, etc.) the more incredulous he becomes.

I didn't like 'The Sheik And I' at all, but I cannot accuse it of being boring. (Matt Goldberg at Collider.com hated it far more than I ever could, and he is far more articulate than I am). To me, Zahedi came off as an entitled Westerner, which for all I know was part of his elaborate act, trying to argue that it was his right as a filmmaker to document everything he saw. Granted, he was commissioned to do this work, and the limits on free speech out there may seem crazy to Westerners. But at the same time, Zahedi doesn't do himself or his film any favours by saying that his goal was to celebrate the people he met, or by coming up with goofy plots for his movie on the fly. He doesn't come off well, and though I didn't care for it, I recommend that you try and check it out. It's definitely one to discuss over a beer afterwards. Read this account of the film's SXSW screening and subsequent shouting match, and get ready for a good fight.