A Cinema of Poverty: an interview with Caveh Zahedi

Gean Moreno


Like some hyperactive memoirist, Caveh Zahedi is certain the ego is the epicenter of every work of art. This has made him take autobiographical investigation as his dogma and absolute disclosure as an aesthetic. It’s as if the world would give him the slip if he ever lost sight of himself, and so, bony and big-eyed, he has starred in all his films. Sounding like a Saint John of the Cross for the age of reality TV, Zahedi has written, “all art is ‘channeled,’ i.e. that it comes from God.” Presumably this is why he’s so comfortable in allowing his movies to begin in such unpromising ways—a video diary of his uneventful life (In the Bathtub of the World), a road-trip movie to Vegas with his dad (I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore). It’s as if divine intervention will save viewers from the hell of unwatchable self-absorption. And when God fails, there’s always ecstasy and mushrooms.

Although he has milked the rogue genre of confession for so much of what it has to offer, it’s the exchange between humor and failure that animates Zahedi’s movies. Sparks fly when there isn’t ever enough money to get things done right; from the need for Zahedi to step in, because who the fuck can afford an actor?; from pretending his personal DV camera is no different from Lars von Trier’s pro equipment; from chasing the remote possibility that a girlfriend crying is a good stand-in for a climax in a film that is nothing but little crescendos that never really peak; from hoping that taping John Ashberry from the last row in the auditorium is kind of like having him star in your movie. This is another way of saying that it’s desire’s drive—rather than unabashed confession—that animates the work. And desire’s drive is never as revved up as when dealing with a poverty of means. Zahedi’s kitchen-counter cinema desacralizes the idea of Big Picture, an idea he seems to love anyway. This is his Agony and Ecstasy—and it plays in the key of nerdy indie rockers and bedroom-bound DJs.

FANZINE: So, I just finished watching the video of In the Bathtub of the World that you sent me and I keep thinking of all the stars that are “in” it—Frank Black, David Byrne, Will Oldham, Borges, James Joyce, John Ashbery.… Maybe we should start by talking about your relationship to fandom.

ZAHEDI: I have always idolized others, especially artists. When I was a kid, I used to write to TV actors and request autographed photos, which I would then put up on my bedroom wall. I realize that there is something arguably unseemly about fandom, but Van Gogh once said something to the effect that the best way to love God is to love as many things as possible. So I’m generally in favor of enthusiasm of almost any kind.

FANZINE: I’m interested in this unseemliness of fandom and how it intersects with the unseemliness of confession. The way that fandom’s fantasies organize your work brings you closer to certain visual artists, like Gary Lee Boas, than to other filmmakers. The presence of Will Oldham, for instance, in Tripping with Caveh is as important as the tripping.

ZAHEDI: René Girard says that the true repression in our society is not sex, which everyone seems to be talking about these days, but envy. Envy rather than lust, according to Girard, is the emotion that drives most of our behavior. He also describes envy as a kind of rejection of self—a kind of wishing one was someone else. I’ve certainly felt this, as well as the shame associated with envy. Confession, if it is authentic confession, implies that there is something unenviable about what one has to confess (otherwise it would be a form of boasting, rather than confessing). Interestingly enough, a lot of the film critics writing about I Am a Sex Addict accused me of boastfulness, which seems to me to be the exact opposite of what I am trying to do in the film—namely, confess). I find it interesting that this celebrity cultural moment is such that what is experienced by oneself as shameful can be perceived by others as boastful, simply because it is being made public, and the public arena is the arena of envy.

FANZINE: I’m sure I Am a Sex Addict has suffered various mis-readings and elicited strong knee-jerk reactions. Beyond good and bad reviews, have critics been projecting onto this film more than usual?

ZAHEDI: Yes, I think so. The most recent review described the film as having “a frankly disgusting plot.” I was struck by the use of the word “disgusting” to describe the plot of my film. What never ceases to amaze me is the inability of some critics to distinguish between the character I am portraying (which is me at a younger age) and the filmmaker who is making the film (which is me looking back on myself ten years earlier). I think whenever a film departs from the well-worn grooves of genre, personal projections tend to get triggered, as there are fewer recognizable landmarks to comfort the viewer. If you add material that is sensitive both emotionally and morally, and around which there tends to be a lot of personal trauma, you are opening the door to all kinds of usually repressed energies and paranoid fantasies to be unleashed in your direction.

FANZINE: But here the disgust attributed to the movie may be pointing back at the unseemliness of confession. There may be something abject about the act of disclosing every little detail about one’s life—it trespasses against certain notions of decorum or modesty.

ZAHEDI: Yes, which is why I made the film in the first place, and why I make all of my films: to trespass against certain notions of decorum or modesty. I don’t believe in decorum. I believe that decorum and modesty hide the truth, and that a lot of what is “wrong” in the world would be rectified if there were more truth and less decorum.

FANZINE: There is, of course, the “this really happened” effect of confession, but when I first saw the movie, I thought of it as a kind of meta-fictional exercise along the line of certain American writers like John Barth or Robert Coover. Confession, as an unstructured genre, gave you all this room to play. And yet, at the same time, the autobiographical element had to be treated as such.

ZAHEDI: What has surprised me is how many people refuse to believe that “this really happened.” I even considered putting a “This Really Happened” title at the beginning of the film to help make the point, but I abandoned the idea because I realized that people still wouldn’t believe me. To me, the “this really happened” aspect of the film is precisely what gives it its “surplus value,” as it were. Many people had suggested falsifying the “true” story for the sake of greater narrative power, but I resisted because the essence of the film is not the narrative, but rather the power of confession. Virginia Woolf once said something to the effect that she doesn’t try to write in a certain style, but rather her “style” emerges organically from what it is she is trying to say. For me, the meta-narrative elements in the film emerged organically as the film evolved.

FANZINE: I want to press the literary thing a little further, because, as I implied before, in I Am a Sex Addict, I thought the literary influences were easier to detect than the cinematic ones. Have writers been more important to you than filmmakers? And not only the American meta-narrators, but maybe someone like Genet who also sets up camp at the autobiography/fiction divide.

ZAHEDI: Yes, writers have been more important to me than filmmakers. My biggest literary influences are probably James Joyce and Wallace Stevens, both of whom are obsessed with meta-narrative strategies and, at the same time, have a quasi-religious relationship to the idea of “reality.” I do like John Barth and Robert Coover, as well as Genet (especially The Thief’s Journal). I personally find naturalism very tired as a style. I love Flaubert, and I love De Sica, but I also believe in the concept of originality. Robert Henri says that “we are not here to do what has already been done,” and I have to agree with that. This is also why I love Godard. He is constantly looking for new forms of expression.

FANZINE: Once you told me that you were interested in not only not repeating what others had done but in having a body of work in which all the films were different from each other.

ZAHEDI: I still feel that way.

FANZINE: Would this mean that you will someday work outside of an autobiographical framework?

ZAHEDI: Yes, my next film is outside of an autobiographical framework.

FANZINE: Could you elaborate a little on this new project?

ZAHEDI: I’m making a film about a historical event—the 1953 CIA-led coup that overthrew the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran.

FANZINE: Which of your contemporaries (filmmakers) do you relate to?

ZAHEDI: The filmmaker I relate to most is probably Lars von Trier. I also relate to the work of Harmony Korine, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry.

FANZINE: How about Michael Winterbottom? Tristam Shandy shares some meta-narrative aspects with I Am a Sex Addict, and 24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs are structured, in some way, from the perspective of the fan.

ZAHEDI: Yes, I do relate to Michael Winterbottom, and admire both 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy, which as you note, are strikingly similar to I Am A Sex Addict in their meta-narrative aspects. What I admire in Winterbottom is his willingness to take risks and to keep pushing the envelope. He also manages, unlike someone like Peter Greenaway (whose work I also admire), to pull this off (with the exception of 9 Songs) in a consistently entertaining way.

FANZINE: How do you view yourself in relation to Iranian—and other Middle Eastern—filmmakers?

ZAHEDI: Well, I’ve noticed that my films are very “Iranian” in the sense that they exhibit a lot of the self-reflexivity that is a defining characteristic of that national cinema. My own use of self-reflexivity preceded my exposure to Iranian cinema, so I can only conclude that it is either a remarkable coincidence or that it evinces some kind of genetic pre-disposition. In any case, it’s remarkable to me that a film like Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence is probably as close to I Am a Sex Addict as any other film I can think of.

FANZINE: Any thoughts on reality TV? Tripping with Caveh is billed as part of a “would-be television series.”

ZAHEDI: Although a lot of reality TV is crass and still contains elements of pre-reality TV, I do see the rise of reality TV as a positive thing, in the Hegelian sense. There is definitely an increasing dissatisfaction with the old forms, and an increasing desire for self-valorization. The culture of celebrity (which tends to make us feel bad about ourselves) and the very human desire for self-affirmation have formed a strange admixture in reality TV, which—while full of contradictions—is also the locus in which a historical dialectic is being played out. It strikes me as both inevitable and ultimately positive. It’s a democratization of television.

FANZINE: Do you see your films, with such small budgets, as a sort of democratization of film, making the whole production of movies a very quotidian thing?

ZAHEDI: Yes, I have tended to think of them in that way. I’m not saying I would never do a bigger budget film (I like to keep trying different things, as I said before), but I do think that the films I’ve made inspire people to make films because they demonstrate what can be done with no money. In that sense, it is a cinema of poverty, in the Stevensian sense of “Natives of poverty, children of malheur/ the gaiety of language is our seigneur.”