Caveh Zahedi: Life as a Film
An interview by Phil Hall
Film Threat, August 2000
It is not uncommon for autobiographical aspects to creep into a filmmaker's output, but few cinema artists go to the lengths that Caveh Zahedi dares to reach. The 40-year-old actor/director has brought forth a rather unique oeuvre: every film revolves around his life.
But unlike irritating one-note navel-contemplators like Henry Jaglom, Zahedi's films are rich with his with extraordinary energy and optimism... even though his energy often seems to be channeled in the wrong directions and his optimism borders on delusional. In 1991, his first feature "A Little Stiff" (co-directed with Greg Watkins) recreated an unrequited college infatuation by bringing all of the actual participants in this one-sided love story together for the film. This unique collaboration premiered at Sundance and snagged Zahedi a theatrical run via Strand Releasing.
Unfortunately, Zahedi's career stumbled with his second feature, 1994's "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore." This documentary, focusing on Zahedi's doomed attempt to foster family unity with his somewhat-aloof father and surly stepbrother during a Christmas trip to Las Vegas, won an award at Rotterdam and was picked up for distribution by World Artists. Unfortunately, it was barely seen, due in large part to a controversial sequence when Zahedi tries to ply the club drug Ecstasy on his father. Although the drug is never consumed on-screen (and actual on-screen drug use was never previously considered taboo), many exhibitors turned thumbs down on this little production and its American run consisted of exactly two one-week screenings.
The commercial failure of "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" kept Zahedi away from directing for several years, although he appeared on-screen in indie flicks including "Citizen Ruth" and "Treasure Island." Recently, however, Zahedi has returned to filmmaking with a vengeance, directing two more films (a short titled "I Was Possessed by God" and DV feature called "Video Diary," in which Zahedi filmed himself from January 1-December 31, 1999) and producing and editing "A Sign From God" (with Greg Watkins directing). "A Sign From God" played to positive feedback at this year's Sundance, signaling something of a comeback for this idiosyncratic auteur.
Film Threat caught up with Zahedi to trace his very, very personal approach to cinematic storytelling.
All of your films have an unparalleled autobiographical focus. At the risk of sounding rude, why do you only make movies about yourself?
I am trying to explore this thing called "life" as deeply as I can, and I feel I can do this most deeply by using my own life (which is theonly life I have any real access to). Put differently, I believe thatall works of art are autobiographical in some sense, and therefore why not be as direct as possible? It's not that I'm not interested in other people's lives - I am. In fact, my favorite literary genre has always been the biography. When I was a kid, I used to always go straight to the "Biography" section of the local library. I don't know why, I've just always been fascinated by other people's lives. Probably because I've always felt I needed a road map for my own life, and that other people's lives could provide this. So when I make an autobiographical film, it's not really as narcissistic as it seems. What I'm really trying to do is provide a road map for someone else. In other words, I'm trying to help.
It has helped me enormously whenever other people have shared with me honest and intimate details about their lives, and so I am trying to do the same for others.
Your first feature "A Little Stiff" played at Sundance in 1991. What was that experience like and how did the film benefit from its Sundance exposure? And how did that experience compare to this year's return to Sundance with the new feature "A Sign From God"?
I think my main experience at Sundance in 1991 was one of incredible disappointment. At the time, getting into Sundance seemed like getting into Heaven, but the experience of being at Sundance was nothing like the experience of being in Heaven (at least, as I imagine it). In other words, it was not salvational. The film got some favorable critical attention, and a small theatrical release from Strand as a result of being at Sundance, but my own experience of being at Sundance was a lot more like being in Hell. And I think it made me realize that filmmaking in itself would never make me happy. Which was very depressing to me at the time because I had spent the last ten years of my life doing almost nothing else, always with the hope that at the end of the tunnel there would be great happiness. But there wasn't, and I think there isn't.
This threw me into something of a tailspin from which it took me years to recover and from which, in many ways, I am still recovering. Which is to say, that ever since Sundance 1991, I have been trying to find a different path, one that would truly lead to happiness. And I don't think that giving up filmmaking is the answer (at least not for me). I think it's something much subtler, which has to do with how I approach filmmaking, and the expectations I have around it.
Which brings us to this year's Sundance festival. I had a much, much better time. Mostly because I was less desperate than I was nine years ago, and knew at a deep level that salvation would not be found there. Instead, I tried to just enjoy the experience, and enjoy the people and the community. It's not as if I'm totally "cured" of my filmmaking-as-salvation paradigm. I still fall into it frequently. But less so than before, and so I was able to have more detachment, and consequently much more fun. Hopefully, I'll just get better and better at doing this, and have more and more fun in life as time goes on.
"A Little Stiff" re-enacted specific happenings from your life by using the actual people involved in these events. What was involved in getting people to play themselves in re-enacting their lives and yours...and how much (if any) artistic license colored the recreations of these events?
In "A Little Stiff," the only difficulty in getting the actual people to play themselves involved getting Erin's ex-boyfriend to play himself. He was quite wary about being portrayed in a negative light (which in fact was my original intention), and it took a lot of fast talking and the promise of four hits of Ecstasy to get him to act in the film. But as we started to shoot his scenes, I grew increasingly fond of him and my initial intention of making fun of him in the film metamorphosed into something much more complex and affectionate.
As for the question of how much artistic licence colored the recreations of these events, there was certainly some artistic licence (I changed a few things around for the purposes of the film) but very little. My feeling at the time was that reality was ultimately more interesting than fiction, so I changed as little as possible and tried to bring out what was interesting or funny or profound about what really happened rather than try to second-guess what I thought would be interesting or funny or profound to some ideal viewer. In short, the goal in that film was to try to trust reality.
Many exhibitors refused to show "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" because of the lengthy sequence in which you present Ecstasy as a Christmas gift. How do you react knowing that films with excess and gratuitous violence have no difficulty finding screens but a small film in which people talk about taking one Ecstasy pill (without actually having the ingestion shown) is considered taboo for commercial exhibition?
Well, it doesn't surprise me. People shooting each other is considered fantasy, but actually trying to get someone to take Ecstasy in the context of a documentary film impinges on people's comfort zones. I mean, that's why I did it. I like to impinge on people's comfort zones, and I like it when works of art impinge on my comfort zones. It's just an æsthetic predilection.
"I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" had only two brief theatrical play dates (a week in Los Angeles and a week in Boston). From an artistic and an emotional standpoint, how do you deal with the reality of a investing time, money and passion into a film which audiences may never see?
Well, I didn't deal with that very well emotionally. I became extremely depressed, and demoralized, and discouraged. Because audiences clearly loved the film. And yet it was a financial disaster. It took me a long time to recover from that experience, and my career (not to mention my financial situation) has never fully recovered from it. Quite simply, it broke my heart. But with all heartbreaks, time goes by, little by little the heart mends, and then one day you fall in love again.
"Video Diary" sounds like an acute professional commitment-filming scenes each and every day for 365 days non-stop. How did you psyche yourself up for such a project and did it progress properly according to plan?
I psyche myself up for things like this by an intuitive sense that I'm supposed to be doing this. It's a kind of sixth sense type of thing. And you're right, it was very hard, and no, it didn't always progress according to plan. In fact, there were days when I didn't film anything at all (I was either too busy, or uninspired, or I simply forgot). But I did manage to shoot something on most days. I have to say though that as soon as the year ended, I was incredibly relieved to be able to stop. In short, yes, it was an emotional and artistic strain, but also a great joy. In fact, one of the reasons I did it was as an antidote to all the waiting around that goes on in filmmaking. That is probably an even greater emotional and artistic strain.
God turns up fairly frequently in your films--He is credited as your co-director for "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" and is an eponymous presence in the upcoming "I Was Possessed by God" and "A Sign From God." At a time when the discussion of theology and the celebration of religious leadership is virtually absent from contemporary cinema, why are you bringing God into your films?
Precisely because I think it's the great taboo subject of our times. The word "God" sends many people running, and there is this great divide between those who use the word (usually people associated with conservative values) and those who don't. I feel I am trying to bridge that divide, because I think that the thing that is behind this word is precisely what unites all of us, and that it is here that we can be joined and undo the divisiveness and us-and-them mentality which is ultimately not a healing force in the world. And it is healing that interests me.
Plus, my own experience of going from an atheistic world view to a spiritual or religious one (and I would just like to say here that I belong to no church or institution or particular religious denomination) has been the single most important experience of my life, and I consequently feel that the spiritual question is the most important one that one can ask and/or try to address in this life.
" I Was Possessed by God" runs only 25 minutes. Why did you decide to make this as a short film rather than a feature?
I would have preferred to make it a feature, but it simply wasn't working as a feature. In other words, it would have been unwatchable, even for me, and I have a greater-than-average capacity for watching something that unfolds slowly. At 25 minutes, I find the film eminently entertaining (not everyone would agree), and I believe in making films that are entertaining. It's like if I were to have a conversation with you, I would try to make it interesting to you so that you would continue to give me your attention. It's the same thing with film. The difference in film is that I can't gauge your reaction as I'm speaking to you, so I have to make it for an ideal interlocutor, and that ideal interlocutor is usually my girlfriend (i.e. someone who is more or less on the same wavelength as me).
"A Sign From God" is an autobiographical story, but you gave the directing reins to Greg Watkins. Why did you decide to do this, and how does it feel to have your story cinematically helmed by another person?
Well, the whole thing was really Greg's idea, even though it was inspired by my own experiences. I used to call Greg up when I was upset (my marriage was falling apart at the time), in order to be able to vent and to get his advice, and he would always laugh at the stories I would tell him and kept saying that this would make a really good film. I was a bit skeptical personally, but I told him I'd do it if he got the money (not really believing that he would). And then one day he called and said he'd gotten the money, so we made the film. And of course, we collaborated on the film a lot (I ended up editing it), but it was really his baby -- it was his vision of life, not mine. As for how it felt to have my story cinematically helmed by another person, the truth is that it was hard for me, and uncomfortable, and I didn't always agree with his choices, and we fought a lot, but in the end I feel that he was true to his vision and to his sensibility, and that's what counts.
I like the film very much (just as I adore Greg), but I don't really feel that it's mine. Greg and I don't actually see eye-to-eye philosophically on the whole God question, so the film doesn't really even represent my point-of-view. In fact, the film mostly makes fun of my point-of-view. Which is fine with me. In my own films, I make fun of my point-of-view too, but not in exactly the same way as Greg does.
What new projects are looming on your artistic horizon?
Well, "I Am A Sex Addict," the story of my addiction to prostitutes is looming on the horizon. It's a film I've been trying to get made for many years, and it looks like Greg and I are going to be co-directing it in the Fall.
- If you are a prostitute and would like to reach Caveh Zahedi online, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can also write him about his films. "A Little Stiff" and "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" are available on home video from World Artists.