Confessions of a Sex Addict
Caveh Zahedi exposes himself on film
by Anjali Sundaram
Release Print, Jan./Feb. 2004
It is October 4, 2003. I am watching a small crew prepare a classroom in St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. Caveh Zahedi is restaging an all-male Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting — the last scene for his new feature film, I Am a Sex Addict. Empty chairs form a large circle with a Sony PD-150 camera at the center. The wiry-framed Zahedi is behind the teacher's desk discussing camera angles with his friend and frequent collaborator, Greg Watkins. The "actors" stroll in. They are Zahedi's friends and colleagues: filmmakers, editors, sound designers, a radio producer. Zahedi reminds them that they are to ad-lib, drawing on personal experience as much as possible. On the walls, colorful illustrations of Ancient Greek battleships and hoplite shields dwarf a "Celebrate Girls" poster from another era. As the actors practice the obligatory twelve-step "Hi Caveh" in unison, it occurs to the cynic in me that this scene is telling. Four thousand years of Western Civilization has brought us from the bronze-covered battering ram on the wall to a group of men in a third-grade classroom discussing their inability to control their sexual appetites. As Zahedi fingers his new wedding ring and talks about how his fascination with prostitutes began, I realize he is engaged in a very sincere attempt to address this history through his personal experience. He continues long after the camera stops rolling, his audience enthralled. "I was walking down the street in Paris when I saw a prostitute. There was something about her — she was wearing this transparent blouse. It reminded me that I was pretending to be someone I wasn't. A nice guy with all these dark secrets."
For anyone who has met the wide-eyed Zahedi, it's hard to imagine him pretending to be anything that he is not. Solemn and restless, but almost childlike in his directness — this unadorned, uncensored quality is what makes his autobiographical films so watchable. His work is pervaded by an unabashed willingness to be vulnerable on camera. Some may find his films narcissistic and self-indulgent. However, many, like Joel Shepard, Film/Video Curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, find them inspiring. "I think Caveh is trying to express something very basic in himself that most humans can relate to — a sense of what consciousness is, and a kind of existential sense of what it is like to be alive on this planet." In 2002, Shepard chose Zahedi to be a Wattis artist-in-residence at the Center and believes he is poised to become a major international filmmaker.
Zahedi and Watkins co-directed their first feature-length film, A Little Stiff, while in graduate school at UCLA. It screened in competition at Sundance in 1991. The film re-enacts Zahedi's crush on an art student, and, in a risky venture typical of their work, the film uses the actual people involved instead of actors. Its black-and-white images, static wide shots, and long takes create a lyrical naturalism as Zahedi's obsession with the unresponsive Erin builds. The film evinces an unmitigated trust in its actors' ability to carry a scene and is devoid of the heavy-handed symbolism and overworked plots favored by so many first-time directors. Ray Carney, Cassavetes scholar and professor of American Studies and Film at Boston University, has devoted a chapter to Zahedi in his forthcoming book, The Real Independent Movement: Beyond the Hype (www.cassavetes.com). In a telephone conversation with me, he praised A Little Stiff for "its Bressonian austerity, in which a simple object, a door ajar, or the way Caveh changes his grip on an ivy clipping can convey a colossal emotional event." Poignant and dryly funny, the film contains many seeds of the pair's later work: the blending of narrative and documentary, the filming of true and unflattering chapters from Zahedi's life, and the mystical belief in some sort of grand design in the universe.
Zahedi's 1994 solo project I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore, is a delightful gamble, if not a sucker's bet. Zahedi sets up the premise: taking his father and estranged half-brother on a road trip to Las Vegas with the intention of plying them with ecstasy in order to get closer to them. Yet he leaves the rest unscripted — a bold move considering it was shot in 16mm, not video. The film, he tells us onscreen, is an attempt to prove the existence of God. He will eschew directing, shoot reality, and have faith that God will take care of the rest. And it works. For example, a roll of film was accidentally loaded into the camera twice, serendipitously creating a hallucinatory double exposure during the ecstasy experience. His small crew has a visible presence in the film and the dynamics of movie-making become part of the story. The film works on multiple levels, calling into question the camera's ability to capture reality and leaving us to ponder the relationship between documentary and fiction, truth and perception.
Zahedi's spiritual experiences with hallucinogens became the subject of his next film I Was Possessed by God (2000). The short features long takes of Zahedi on a mushroom trip, writhing in bed and possibly channeling voices from some universal subconscious. In the Bathtub of the World (2001), a video diary shot over the course of a year, shows him shaving his head to stimulate hair growth, fighting with his girlfriend, and lamenting that he's run out of ideas. Most recently, Zahedi's contribution to a compilation of films about 9/11, features Zahedi teaching a class at the San Francisco Art Institute two days after the collapse of the Twin Towers. The World Is a Classroom (2002) documents the real-life battle of bruised egos suffered when Zahedi tried to get his students to loosen up and move around the room. The confrontation between Zahedi and a student quickly escalates into an unproductive stalemate, until a round of "diplomatic" talks diffuses the situation.
The ideas of French film critic André Bazin clearly inform Zahedi's work. In Richard Linklater's 2001 animated feature Waking Life, Zahedi appears, extemporizing on Bazin's notion that while literature's strength is telling stories, the power of cinema is in reproducing reality. In Zahedi's interpretation of the Christian Bazin, reality is God, and, in framing reality, film has a unique ability to render the seemingly mundane moments of our lives holy. In his work, Zahedi takes Bazin a step further. Rather than aiming to reproduce reality as faithfully as possible, he experiments with relinquishing directorial control. He films reality, taking his own experience as the best possible source of material. Yet, Zahedi does not really help us filter through this material. He is an unreliable narrator, either stoned or too emotionally involved to offer an objective report on the action. Because of this approach, his films stay with you, as days later you find yourself still contemplating their ambiguities.
Zahedi screened a work-in-progress cut of I Am a Sex Addict at the recent Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema. No chronicle of saturnalian delights as the title suggests, I Am a Sex Addict is rather a critique of the self, filled with dread, misgivings, and neurosis. It may be the most personal and embarrassing confession committed to celluloid. Standing in the backroom of the hall where he is about to be married to his girlfriend of six years, Zahedi describes his addiction to sex with prostitutes, which began in his early '20s, and his twelve-step recovery. He is expert at culling wonderfully awkward and intimate moments from his life. For instance, Zahedi is in a hotel room with a prostitute for the first time. As she methodically cleans him below the frameline, he turns to the camera — a man with his pants around his ankles, looking terrified and confused. Such moments engender a tenderness and empathy for the character. At other times, he comes off as an insensitive lout who can only see his own immediate self-interest. There's a lot of bickering and a lot of banging. While most of the sex is rote and played for laughs, Zahedi's orgasms during a series of blow-jobs are discomfiting in their excess and contrast with the sanitized and ritualized sex act usually depicted in mainstream movies. Provoking a mixed reaction to his character from the viewer is quintessential Zahedi. Carney finds this strategy admirable: "What a wonderful place to get your work to as an artist — one where the viewer does not quite know how to react. It forces us to stay open."
Like his previous work, I Am a Sex Addict reflects Zahedi's deep ambivalence toward narrative, and is an ambitious attempt to find a new form that can accurately capture human experience. But here his story is told in retrospect. With a mock-instructional format laying out the psychology of addiction and guiding us through dramatic reenactments of his past relationships, he has become a reliable narrator. His experience has been fully processed, and with the ironic telling of past events, little is left unarticulated or unresolved. At the time of our conversation, Zahedi is in the editing stage, struggling with this aspect of the film. "What I like about my films is that they usually give the viewer a lot of room. I feel like I erred a little bit on this one by trying to get it the way I wanted it, but yeah, I had a very specific thing I was trying to convey. It's a weird balance between getting what you want and letting it be. Now my task is to let it breathe more." He is contemplating opening up the narrative by combining it with the parallel story of making the movie. "There were all kinds of things that happened on the set that involved sexuality and power, manipulation. These seemed to me like interesting refractions of the other story."
Looking back on his motives for making the film, Zahedi says, "Something had happened to me that was universal and painful, and I felt like this is why it all happened, so I could verbalize it." The Amer-ican-born son of Iranian immigrants, he takes on his parents' past as well, "I think that the culture of my parents is a very unenlightened culture, sexually. I think I inherited some of that just from being their kid, but I also inherited it genetically. I felt like I was trying to redeem something that was very ancient and old in history." Zahedi is also interested in addressing the Puritanism of contemporary American culture. "I really want to explain sex addiction to people who don't get it and are judgmental about it. It's really obvious with public figures, like with the Monica Lewinsky thing, where people are like, 'he's [Bill Clinton] an asshole for doing that.' No one ever said, 'well, he's obviously got some pain that isn't being addressed here.' There was no empathy in the public eye."
Given these imperatives, I Am a Sex Addict was written initially to reach a wider audience than his experimental work. Zahedi conceived the film as a conventional, dramatic narrative shot in 35mm. He spent six years after completing the script in 1993 seeking a modest $2 million budget. He succumbed to the insistence on the part of potential investors that he find recognizable actors to play himself and the other major roles. Zahedi played the game, and the actors he approached either passed on it or never responded. He nearly gave up. But in 2001, he decided to forge ahead with an initial donation of $50,000. Settling for shooting digital video on a smaller budget, Zahedi had to revise the form. "It forced me to make it more experimental, which I am glad about. It's truer to my own aesthetic." In Brechtian fashion, the dramatizing of past events in I Am a Sex Addict is interrupted with second takes, actors forgetting their lines, and Zahedi breaking character mid-scene to address the viewer.
I Am a Sex Addict is also more humorous than Zahedi's previous work. Yet, Zahedi is also aware that his playful narration works to minimize character psychology, and, in effect, the ironic distance is somewhat at odds with the serious content of the piece. "I suffered a lot in that period, and I am not sure that comes across in the film yet. It's hard because you are always trying to make people laugh, keep them entertained, and then at the end, they're not going to buy [the epiphany] because you have sent them down this other path." These issues are difficult for any director working with both form and content of any complexity. Even tougher for one making autobiographical work, in which the script is deeply personal.
For Zahedi, the process of making the work is as important to him as the final outcome. He says dealing with frustration, humiliation, and his own investment in perfectionism during the making of the film has been incredibly painful but also productive. "It is very scary for me to make this film because I want to make 'the' great film, and it's hard to make this film perfect. It's quite possible that it will always have these essential flaws, but I feel like I am a better person for being able to do it anyway."