The notion of inviting a filmmaker as relentlessly self-absorbed as Caveh Zahedi to make a movie for a major Middle-Eastern arts festival that’s meant to examine “art as a subversive act” sounds preposterously ironic enough to turn up in one of Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’s mockumentaries. But Zahedi really was requested by Rasha Salti to participate in the Sharjah Biennial, a large celebration of the arts that, one surmises, is meant to refute the global notion of the Middle East as a land of unforgiving austerity, censorship, and fanaticism. Salti tells Zahedi that he has absolutely no restrictions in his undertaking, but the filmmaker, understandably dubious, presses the curator until she confesses that mocking the Sheik of Sharjah, the leader (and owner) of one of the largest of the United Arab Emirates, is off-limits.
The Sheik and I, the result of Salti’s proposal to Zahedi, concerns the director’s attempts to fulfill an assignment that’s hopelessly riddled with contradictions. The citizens of Sharjah don’t have the right to freedom of speech, and they can be routinely jailed for rebellions that Americans take for granted, so it’s either a pronounced act of self-delusion or hypocrisy for Sharjah’s rulers to commission a work that celebrates art’s possibilities. Zahedi, who wears his ignorance of Sharjah’s culture as a badge of honor throughout, immediately seizes on the catch-22 of the assignment and sets about deliberately alienating everyone he comes into contact with while filming. Zahedi never explicitly admits to this, but his film has been clearly rigged to fail the sheik’s standards in an effort to present a larger deconstruction of a dictatorship.
That’s a reasonable conceit for a film, but Zahedi, frankly, doesn’t have the talent or the self-awareness to pull it off (this doc essay, or whatever you want to call it, also doesn’t benefit from comparisons to This Is Not a Film, in which a similar concept is executed with daring emotional directness). An Iranian American, Zahedi would appear to be possessing just enough awareness of Middle-Eastern culture to persuade cops, saints, museum curators, and random people on the street to participate in a film that’s obviously going to prove be seen by the sheik as inflammatory, but he doesn’t allow that awareness to blossom into an empathetic sensibility. Or, simply, he plays up the clichés of the entitled American blowhard in a loathsome attempt to encourage his subjects to succumb to the clichés of the threatening Middle Easterner, a ploy that backfires when most of subjects kindly, reasonably attempt to explain to Zahedi that he’s potentially endangering them.
Which means that The Sheik and I, like other Zahedi films, is essentially a Portrait of an Asshole As a Middle-Aged Man, ultimately more concerned with Zahedi’s attempts to pursue a variety of dull passing fancies than with any larger agenda. Zahedi decides to use Sharjah culture as a springboard for a terrible action film—an idea that’s pathetically old hat in the age of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The filmmaker continually asserts the intentional stupidity of his conceit, which causes one to wonder what exactly is its point. The point, which Zahedi professes directly to the camera to ensure that we get it, is that a man should have the right to say something whether or not it’s idiotic, thus revealing The Sheik and I to be a film, commissioned by a Middle-Eastern culture, that’s a (banal) testament to American values. This film is so obnoxious it nearly inspires uncomfortable sympathy for an oppressive regime.