SXSW 2012. Documentary Feature Competition

The Daily

As I mentioned when rounding up the Narrative Feature Competition, wrapping SXSW 2012 could take a while. That batch opened with comments from one of the jurors, J Hoberman, and this one will as well. First, though, let's mention that we already have roundups going on the award-winners, Beware of Mr Baker and Bay of All Saints.

So the Guardian's Catherine Shoard, jury member, found Jeffrey Kimball's The Central Park Effect to be "a sweet study of the birders who flock to Manhattan's thick strip of parkland each spring. It was pretty gentle, generic, even, but felt from a different planet from the rest in that it wasn't wholly human-focused. Sure, the warblers and the robins are red herrings, and it's really all about the cast of eccentrics who eyeball them – including celeb twitcher Jonathan Franzen, who pitches in with some unusually self-deprecating soundbites."

Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times: "Jeff paints a quietly unnerving portrait of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and his effect on the people of Milwaukee. Interviews with Dahmer's former neighbor, the police detective who took his confession and the city medical examiner are intercut with fictional scenes of Dahmer at his most normal and mundane, out in the world like anyone else. Sometimes evil too must ride the bus. The meditative hybrid film is the feature debut for 29-year-old director Chris James Thompson, who works in the Milwaukee office of Chris Smith, maker of the seminal documentary American Movie…. 'It's such a sensitive topic, the list of things I was worried about was endless,' said Thompson of his decisions on how to portray Dahmer. 'Except I knew that I didn't set out to make him sympathetic. That wasn't my goal. Anyone watching the film knows the horrible things he did and would never excuse any of that or make apologies on his behalf. We didn't sit down and say, "Let's make a sympathetic plea for Jeffrey Dahmer." It was more, "Let's make a movie that shows what everyone around him had to deal with."'"

Debbie Lum's Seeking Asian Female is a "terrifically engaging account of the relationship between Steven, a San Francisco granddad and Sandy, a 30-year-old Chinese woman eager to move to the west," writes Catherine Shoard. "When the director introduced them at the end, they remained in their seats, Steven beaming as he had through the movie, his wife sad, glowering. It's a movie stripped of talking heads and whizzy effects, of pseudy punditry and zeitgeist contextualization. Just a compelling, subtle story whose ending hasn't yet been written."

We come to the one film in this lineup that I saw in Austin, Caveh Zahedi's The Sheik and I, though the screening I caught was not the now-infamous premiere — we'll get to that. The trailer above doesn't quite get across how engaging the complex narrative's going to become, but it does take care of the set-up pretty well. Still, to reiterate: Sharjah, one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates, designated "art as a subversive act" as the theme of its 2011 Biennial and the Sharjah Art Foundation invited Zahedi to make a film to be screened at the festivities. The heads of the Foundation claimed to be fans of Zahedi's work, and early on in The Sheik and I, Zahedi reminds us why we might find this to be just as surprising as he does by showing us clips from I Am a Sex Addict (2005) and the short I Was Possessed by God (2000) in which he ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms in order to replicate a previous experience of "divine possession." So, fine, they really ought to be aware of what they're in for.

As Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times in an April 2011 piece that, naturally, makes a cameo appearance in The Sheik and I, "he was counseled that there were three things he needed to avoid if he wanted the film to be shown: frontal nudity and making fun of the prophet Muhammad or Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah. Mr Zahedi, 50, who grew up mostly in Los Angeles and now teaches at the New School in Manhattan, said that he was fine with the first two prohibitions but that the third one bothered him — to the extent that it 'kind of made me interested in actually saying yes to the proposal.' The hourlong film he eventually made after a short visit to Sharjah last winter with his wife, their toddler son and a small crew ended up chronicling how he went to Sharjah and, with no idea what to film there, essentially made a film about failing repeatedly to observe the third prohibition. 'It is irreverent, but those are the kinds of films I make — I'm irreverent,' he said in a recent interview. He added, 'I think because my parents are Iranian everyone thought that I would understand the Middle East, and they didn't get that I was completely an American.'"

I'm with the L's Mark Asch on this one, and what's more, he was at that premiere: "Like Eve, Zahedi pushes up against taboos mostly to find out what they even are, and discovers things about immigrant labor in wealthy Arab countries, the suspicion of representational art among many Muslims, and [the] polite terror of authority." And it's not just that Zahedi's film, Plot for a Biennial, was, of course, ultimately not screened:

[H]e received an order to destroy all copies of the film or risk a blasphemy trial and possibly violent consequences for his local crew, and is only showing the film publicly in the West following a legal agreement with the Sheik's lawyers, which guaranteed American jurisdiction in the event of any reprisals.

At the film's world premiere screening on [March 11], Zahedi, still being filmed by his crew, fielded questions from a several furious audience members: he was told that he was being insensitive to Arab culture; that he was exploiting his powerless local crew and leaving him to deal with the consequences (his lawyer, in attendance, took particular offense to that suggestion), and that, though he may naively think otherwise, he was putting his wife and son (also in the audience) at risk of revenge killing by inflamed "radical Arabs."

Of course, all these are criticisms that Zahedi invites, in his way: throughout his career, his reflexive, radically open films have included his own commentary on the process, and he's always careful to put his motivations and methods in play, allowing our questions, and maybe reservations, about his process and intentions to be a part of the film.

More from Christopher Campbell (Movies.com) and Eric Kohn (indieWIRE); and Filmmaker's Dan Schoenbrun has five questions for Zahedi. On a slightly related note, Omar Kholeif sends a postcard from the Sharjah Art Foundation's fifth annual March Meeting to frieze.

Update, 3/27: "The surprise is not in how far Zahedi goes to encounter said 'taboos,' but in just how little he needs to do to create controversy," finds Susan Gerhard, writing at Fandor. "His style is less ugly American than otherworldy observer; the mood was, to me, very Jacques Tati, with physical comedy-infused refraction/reflection on the clashing of contemporary cultures before him. Acts of treason? Zahedi organized a small dance number in a museum; created a fictional hijacking for a fictional film; recorded a citizen saying the government might be racist; choreographed a group of children kicking off their shoes while praying. Seemingly every action taken by the director is questioned by his funders in a ridiculously no-win situation Zahedi was clearly savvy enough to catch onto early."

For Steve Dollar, writing at GreenCine Daily, Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos's The Source is "a well-told history of Los Angeles cult The Source Family and its founder, Jim Baker — aka Father Yod — who turned a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip into a would-be cultural revolution as he led a clan of 200 on a quest for utopia in the Hollywood Hills. And, also happened to take on many of his comely followers as brides while recording some 65 albums of visionary psychedelic rock as the Ya Ho Wha 13."

This "exceptionally compelling documentary" centers less on Father Yod, notes Stephen Saito, than on "Charlene Peters, the fiancée of rock photographer Ron Raffaelli who literally went into The Source's pioneering vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip looking for Jesus — statues, that is, for a photo shoot — and came out as Isis Aquarian, a member of Yod's flock. Like so many in the film, she can hardly explain why she was so transfixed by Yod and his lifestyle, though the appeal of a well-funded, well-stocked commune clearly held its allure. Isis is similarly vague on why she started recording nearly everything that happened on The Source's palatial compound in the Hollywood Hills, yet it's the thousands of photographs, hundreds of scratchy 16mm home films and countless recordings of the group's music which form the experience of actually being in Father Yod's midst."

"When filmmaker Avi Zev Weider and his wife turned to in-vitro fertilization after having trouble conceiving, they never expected triplets," writes Dan Schoenbrun, introducing his interview with the director of Welcome to the Machine for Filmmaker. "But this is indeed what they got — three underweight infants who spent the first several months of their lives in the hospital's high-tech neo-natal intensive care unit. Weider was already fascinated with the topic of humankind's relationship with technology. But having personally witnessed the miracle of life made possible via scientific innovation, he set out to explore the implications of man's growing dependance on technology from a decidedly personal perspective."

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