Filmmaker Focus: Caveh Zahedi

The first AAFF Filmmaker Focus features an artist embracing risk and self-examination, Caveh Zahedi, who screened at the 39th AAFF with Worm (co-produced with Jay Rosenblatt).

"My current project, The Prime Minister, The Shah, The Ayatollah, and I, is a personal documentary about growing up Iranian-American at a time in which the United States and Iran went from being allies to enemies.  At least that’s how I pitched it to the funders who ended up giving me some money.  But the trick is to make it interesting for myself, something that I discover, something that I haven’t seen before.  In short, I can’t really know what it is I’m going to do.  If I did, the film would lose all magic and all life.

Obviously, one needs to have a certain intention in making a film, and one has to do one’s best to describe this intention in any grant proposal.  But most intentions come from a deep, personal, and ultimately ineffable place, and putting them into words can be misleading.  My intention is to make a film that says something important about the human condition.  Could you be more specific?  Yes and no.  You really just have to see the film, but I need you to trust me and to give me that money.

In my case, I wanted to make a film that dealt with politics and with current events in Iran.  But in trying to conceive the film, I immediately came upon a big problem, namely the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject.  Well, do your homework, you could say.  But the fact is there are people who spend years of their lives studying these things, and anything I would have to say would be second-hand knowledge.

“Use your own life” is another strategy, and this is the strategy that I’ve adopted.  But the film needs to both feel organic and to have structure.  How do I make a film about my own life that also talks about Iran? My parents are Iranian, so there’s obviously a certain amount of overlap.  But I was born in the U.S. and there isn’t all that much overlap if you come right down to it.  The last thing I want to do is to make another film about identity politics, because that has been done to death and I’m personally allergic to that approach. 

So what to do?  Here is the difficult work of writing, of digging more deeply into what the film is trying to be.  Wallace Stevens describes this process as “the finding of a satisfaction.”  My problem is that very little satisfies me.  But some things satisfy more than others, and if you keep at it, eventually the satisfaction quotient starts to build, and that is where I hope to arrive.

A structure is needed.  In my case, I am using The Thousand and One Nights, because 1) it’s a Persian story and 2) it provides a framework that can incorporate a lot of disparate strands – the personal as well as the political.  But there is an even more important reason, and that has to do with the nature of story.

The Thousand and One Nights offers the framework of a fable, which I find infinitely more appropriate for a discussion of politics than what I would call the conventional documentary’s claim to truth.  Such a claim is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  We have already been told enough fables masquerading as truth, whether about Iraq or Iran or Vietnam or human sexuality.  What is needed is a discourse that is aware of the fabular nature of all stories, and that eschews the truth discourse epitomized by the local news. 

I am still searching for the form of my film.  I write, and I write, and I re-write until it seems to me to be satisfactory, and then and only then will I start to shoot.  The film will go through many transformations, just like a person, but that is the most beautiful thing about the process – this not knowing and then, slowly, gradually, finding out."

Caveh Zahedi is an autobiographical writer/actor/director who combines both dramatic and documentary elements in his work. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a winner of the 2005 Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” You can learn more about Caveh on his website here.


Posted on December 01st, 2008