Caveh Zahedi’s new film I Am a Sex Addict is a cinematically inventive, starkly candid and strangely charismatic journey through the actor-director’s battle to overcome his sex addiction. Narrated by Zahedi on the day of his third wedding, the film revisits his compulsive encounters with prostitutes and the damage they inflicted on his relationships with women, using a beguiling mix of direct-to-camera confessionals, authentic home-movie footage, dramatic reenactments, and even flash animations to explore Zahedi’s past. The man has long toiled on the experimental vanguard of cinematic autobiography, and the film is his most conscious effort to appeal to a mainstream audience—ironically through the most painfully private subject matter he has explored to date. I spoke with Zahedi about the dual challenges of serving his subject and his audience, insights that arose while making the film, and reactions to the film’s subject matter from his actresses and the public.
What films about addiction inspired you? The direct address to the audience reminded me of Trainspotting.
I think I’ve seen them all. I watched Lost Weekend a lot and loved the structure of that. When a Man Loves a Woman, Clean and Sober, Days of Wine and Roses. But none of them were very helpful for my purposes because they were all very classical in structure. I really wanted to be true to the reality of my experience. The problem with my film is that people think the film is redundant and repetitive.
But with addiction isn’t that the point?
But with a lot of viewers, the way they are trained to watch movies, they need a constantly escalating narrative arc. The film doesn’t have that structure, so some people find it a little long. It was a real trick to make it 90 minutes and stick to the facts.
Prior to this film I think most people may know you from your monologue in Waking Life about the “Holy Moment” and how every moment in life has sacredness to it. How do you relate that theory with these moments you’ve had with your sex addiction, compulsively seeking the company of prostitutes?
A lot of people say that addicts are people who have a strong spiritual yearning and they’re actually looking for spiritual feeling, but they’re not finding it. There is spiritual yearning behind the sexual drive, and the alcoholic and drug and gambling drives too. I do think there is a metaphysical quality to sexual encounters with strangers. Something about intimacy and strangeness at the same time that is a little bit like the religious experience. At the same time it is an escape from the true spiritual experience of intimacy that one is wanting, and I guess the film is an attempt to show addiction in those terms. [Pause] In terms of the holy moment—the idea is that every moment is holy. It’s just a matter of whether you see it or not. There’s a guy who went to see a guru. He was an alcoholic. The guru said, “I’m not going to tell you not to drink, just think it is God drinking God.” I remember thinking, why don’t I try that? So I had sex with a prostitute and I thought this is God giving a blowjob to God. And I thought if I could keep the God consciousness in my mind that might heal it. Well, it was an interesting experience but it didn’t really heal it.
Over the course of the narrative you put out a lot of theories about how to deal with your conflicted feelings about sex. There’s an early moment when you’re talking about your problems with monogamy and how at the time you link it to problems with capitalism and the Vietnam War.
Obviously they’re absurd to a great degree, though I don’t completely reject them. The film attempts to be dialectical. It posits something, then it refutes it to move toward a deeper understanding through negation. There’s the idea in Hinduism of a negative path to God. You do everything that’s opposite to what they say you should do. Instead of doing good, you do really bad. In a way the film is an attempt to show the negative path to God, sin as the path, not virtue. And arguably sin is a better path because you learn more deeply what it is you’re dealing with. They say the worst sinners make the greatest saints.
That makes me think of Pickpocket. I feel there was a Bressonian way in how you treated the actors.
I thought about Pickpocket a lot and I studied it very carefully before I made my movie. I wasn’t trying to do a Bressonian acting job so much. I was going for naturalism as much as possible with a stylization that was appropriate to the style of the movie. I knew I could get away with a lot of flatness because the film isn’t naturalistic and because it’s so self-conscious.
I wonder if it’s a strategy to appeal to the audience. If there’s a certain level of artifice and distance, it makes the subject matter more acceptable.
This film was made with an audience in mind of, say, my intelligent friends who weren’t film people. My earlier films were aimed at film people. I went broader than I usually go. I did dozens of test screenings and tried to figure out what people did and did not respond to. Things that I loved I would cut out because people didn’t respond to, and things I disliked I kept because the audience loved it.
Why did you feel the need to do that?
I really wanted the film to get seen. I’d made four features and they didn’t get distributed very widely. Because of the subject matter I thought it was an important film for people to see and I thought it would do well in the marketplace.
I think for a lot of people it’s very uncomfortable to watch someone put their self on screen as explicitly as you have. It’s very easy to accuse an artist of being indulgent by the very nature of the subject matter. When you make a film like this, are you conscious about being too narcissistic or indulgent?
I always find that accusation really thoughtless. Narcissism is self-love to an excessive degree. I don’t think that my films exhibit excessive self-love. On the contrary, they’re incredibly harsh on . If anything I can see someone coming up to me and saying, “You poor thing, you shouldn’t be so harsh on yourself.”
Isn’t that kind of a perverse way of appealing to an audience? The self-flagellation becomes the seduction. Woody Allen does it all the time.
With this film, I had to appeal to the audience for them to be interested in the movie. In my other films, I don’t try very hard for the audience to like me, and as a result a lot more of them don’t, and it prevents them from watching the movie. There’s a certain amount of audience identification that’s necessary for a film to be successful, and I needed that minimum amount. I went as far as I could to stay on the line of not being accessible. I tried to find a balance that seemed comfortable for me and had integrity while serving the marketplace. In terms of self-indulgence, it’s really just pleasing yourself. But this film was conceived in terms of what pleases another. This film was made in terms of understanding what a viewer would need to engage. In that sense it’s anything but self-indulgent.