Caveh Zahedi

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“It’s Even More Complicated Than That”

On December 7th, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn published an article titled “Critic’s Notebook: Was Caveh Zahedi “Blacklisted” By Thom Powers? It’s More Complicated Than That.” In his article, Kohn publicly acknowledges for the first time that he was contacted by Thom Powers prior to writing his review of my film when it premiered at SXSW and that Powers’ allegations against my film became a key but unacknowledged part of his “review.”

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The Abuse of Power(s)

I recently made and posted an 8-minute youTube video titled I WAS BLACKLISTED BY THOM POWERS. It tells the story of how I came to submit my film,THE SHEIK AND I, to the Montclair Film Festival because of its association with Stephen Colbert who had reportedly hired Thom Powers to be its programmer. Powers is also the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, the Miami Film Festival, DOC NYC, Stranger than Fiction, and SundanceNOW.  It tells the story of Mr. Powers’ attempts to blacklist my film and why I believe his actions are symptomatic of an alarming trend by essentially well-meaning liberals to side with those who would limit freedom of speech.

In response, Mr. Powers released a rebuttal on his blog.

The following is my point-by-point refutation of his rebuttal.

1) Powers: “I try to maintain a policy of not speaking publicly about films I don’t program.”

Zahedi: Instead of speaking publicly about my film (which I’ve invited him to do), he secretly attempted to suppress my film by contacting people in positions of power without disclosing the conflict of interest that his non-disclosure conveniently conceals, namely his working relationship with Rasha Salti, a fellow programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, who appears in my film.

2) Powers: “However, because Caveh Zahedi has accused me in a YouTube video of “blacklisting” his film THE SHEIK AND I, I want to clarify certain facts before further misinformation gets out of hand.”

“Misinformation”?

3) Powers: “Prior to the SXSW film festival, Caveh Zahedi asked for my opinion of his film THE SHEIK AND I.”

Zahedi: This assertion is shamelessly disingenuous. I submitted my film to the Montclair Film Festival, not because I wanted his “opinion” of my film, but because I wanted him to show it at his festival. I am a big fan of Stephen Colbert and it was my hope that Stephen Colbert would see the film and like it and possibly invite me to discuss it on his show. A simple “yes” or “no” from Thom Powers would have sufficed.

4) Powers:  “I wrote him a private letter detailing my grave reservations about the film and what I considered the disregard that he showed for the people filmed – in many cases without their consent – and the possible repercussions for their safety.”

Zahedi:  True.

5) Powers: “I advised him not to show the film at SXSW in its current state.”

Zahedi: That’s a bold-faced lie. He never said anything about not showing the film “in its current state.” But don’t take my word for it. You can check it out for yourself. Filmmaker magazine has since published the letter he sent to me.

6) Powers: “I shared that letter with SXSW programmer Janet Pierson, so that she wouldn’t be taken by surprise if Zahedi followed through on my advice; and because I thought the issues were serious enough to warrant further consideration on her part.”

Zahedi: This makes no sense. Why is Mr. Powers so concerned that Janet Pierson not be “surprised” were I to heed his “advice” and pull the film from SXSW? And even if I were so impressionable as to pull my film from SXSW because of his “advice,” why couldn’t I explain the reasons to Janet Pierson myself? And since when is the possibility of “surprise” so intolerable that it would be incumbent on him to intervene in order to prevent such a trauma from occurring? Again, it is enough to read the letter he sent to Janet Pierson to conclude that Mr. Powers is being less than honest here.

7) Powers: “That is the only occasion when I initiated any correspondence with a festival programmer about the film.”

Zahedi: If that’s true, then why did Janet Pierson tell me that she had heard from other programmers that they too had been contacted by Thom Powers?

8) Powers:  “As we know, that email didn’t change the course for SXSW.”

Zahedi: True. But Janet Pierson told me that she was sufficiently alarmed by Thom Powers’ email to seriously consider pulling the film and that she went to Louis Black, the owner of SXSW, for advice on what to do. Unlike Thom Powers, Louis Black (who also happens to be the editor of the Austin Chronicle), is someone committed to the principle of free speech. He determined that it was a free speech issue and gave Janet Pierson the green light to show it as originally planned.
My claim was never that Thom Powers succeeded in blacklisting my film. My claim is that he attempted to. Justifying his behavior by saying that he failed “to change the course for SXSW” is like a bank robber justifying his attempts to rob a bank by arguing that he was unsuccessful.

9) Powers:  “I also wrote to three journalists after they had written positively about the film to provide additional context.”

Zahedi:  Again, this is misleading. Eric Kohn, Indiewire’s senior writer, told me that Thom Powers contacted him before he had written his review of my film and that  Kohn’s Indiewire review was, to a large extent, his answer to Thom Powers’ accusations. The very title of the piece, Caveh Zahedi Puts Lives in Danger and Faces a Fatwa for ‘The Sheik and I.’ Immoral or Essential? Try Both,” reflects the fact that Kohn has already been approached by Powers and was trying to balance both perspectives (Powers: Immoral; Zahedi: Essential).

Also, I heard from more than three journalists that they had been contacted by Thom Powers.

10) Powers: “None of that correspondence resulted in any change of their positions.”

Zahedi:  Yes and no. Thom Powers may not have been able to change the positions of journalists, but he did succeed in influencing the terms of the debate by contacting Eric Kohn before he wrote his Indiewire review.

11) Powers:  “Zahedi uses the term “blacklist” evoking the era of Joe McCarthy when filmmakers had their livelihoods threatened. That’s a far cry from this situation.”

Zahedi:  Any truly independent filmmaker can attest to the fact that whether or not a film gets into a high profile festival can have a very significant impact on one’s livelihood. If SXSW had pulled the film, a whole host of other opportunities to show the film would have been foreclosed. It almost certainly wouldn’t be coming out this very weekend on VOD.

12) Powers:  “On the contrary, it’s important to note that I curated his earlier film I Am a Sex Addict for SundanceNOW’s Doc Club for February 2013.”​

Zahedi:  This is the first time I’ve heard anything about this. I looked it up and noticed that he also programmed his own documentary, Breasts (his prequel to Private Dicks). Isn’t that what some people would call a conflict of interest?

13) Powers:  “I’m hardly the only person who had problems with The Sheik and I.”

Zahedi:  True. My films are controversial and tackle difficult issues, including documentary ethics. However, it’s one thing to have “problems” with the film; it’s another to work behind the scenes using your position and professional influence to try to prevent audiences from seeing a film because you happen to have “problems” with it.

14) Powers:  “I’d point you to this substantial review out of SXSW in Collider.”

Zahedi:  Really? Thom Powers considers this review “substantial”? The review in question­‑‑the only negative review that I’m aware of to come out of SXSW‑‑was written by a Mr. Matt Goldberg, whose grasp of grammar is, at best, remedial. Here’s just one example: “Most of them don’t understand his celebration reflexive storytelling.”

Mr. Goldberg’s command of metaphor is equally impressive: “We’re forced to further choke on Zahedi’s bullshit when he claims that the goal of his mockumentary wasn’t to mock Arabs but to celebrate them.”

I was not previously familiar with Mr. Goldberg‘s work. Perhaps he is a teenager. His prose style is decidedly “Junior High”: “He’s being blocked by the people who paid for his movie.  If someone commissions you to do a painting and then they decide, for whatever reason, not to hang it in their gallery, you don’t get to throw a tantrum about not having your work displayed.  It is the property of the buyer and Zahedi is remarkably naïve and immature if he thinks the artist has final say in such a situation.”
Just to clarify, my film wasn’t the property of the “buyer.” It was a commissioned film for which a contract had been signed to the effect that I retained all rights. The journalism teachers at the Junior High School that Mr. Goldberg currently attends would do well to explain to him the concept of fact checking before he publishes any more articles this “substantial.”

By way of contrast (note the subtle difference in prose style), here’s what the New York Times had to say about the film.

15) Powers:  “But Zahedi can’t seem to accept that he’s made a film with a mixed response.”

Zahedi:  Not true. I’ve been making films with mixed responses for over twenty years. I get this every day. You should read my hate mail. Even my friends dislike some of my films. That doesn’t stop us from being friends.

The issue isn’t that Thom Powers doesn’t like my film. He has every right not to like it and to publicly say he doesn’t like it. The issue is that he is abusing his not inconsiderable power by secretly trying to prevent a film from being shown at a festival for which he is not the programmer and by clandestinely trying to persuade journalists about what and how to write about a film while failing to mention the conflict of interest inherent in his personal relationship to Rasha Salti, the Toronto International Film Festival programmer who appears in my film.

16) Powers:  “This incident has been thoroughly raked over by other journalists including Violet Lucca of Film Comment who spent a lot of time looking into it in the spring before deciding it wasn’t really a story.”

Zahedi:  Again, this is misleading.  Film Comment abandoned the story not because “it wasn’t really a story” but because they couldn’t get anyone to admit that Thom Powers had contacted them. And yet, Eric Kohn admitted finally today in an article he wrote for Indiewire that he had been contacted by Thom Powers before writing his review. Powers wields a lot of influence in the film community and people are understandably concerned about alienating him.

Here is a quote from Thom Powers himself: “Programmers circulate like the honeybees in this industry. We’re talking to everyone … definitely don’t alienate the programmer” (from a pbs.org interview).

Powers’ assertion that “it wasn’t really a story” is like saying that organized crime doesn’t “really” exist because no one is willing to come forward to testify against crime bosses.

17) Powers:  “It’s ironic that Zahedi stands on the ground of free speech, yet wants to smear me for exercising mine.”

Zahedi:  Freedom of speech, as I understand it, is the freedom to publicly say what you believe without fear of reprisal. Thom Powers’ attempts to secretly blacklist my film don’t fall under the rubric of free speech. By this logic, insider trading would also qualify as free speech.

What Thom Powers fails to mention is that when I first heard about his attempts to blacklist my film, I emailed him directly and suggested that, since he obviously feels strongly about the issues the film raises, I was wiling to have a public debate with him about those issues. He didn’t bother to respond.

Having gone out of his way to blacklist my film (in secret), he is now accusing me of smearing him because I chose to make his actions public. His argument reveals a worrisome confusion as to the fundamental difference between free speech and secret machinations.

The important point in all this isn’t just that Thom Powers tried to blacklist my film. If there weren’t larger issues at stake, it would hardly be worth mentioning. What’s important here is that freedom of speech, one of our most cherished and hard-won values, is currently under attack, not only from Muslim fundamentalists but also from politically correct liberals like Thom Powers, a documentary programmer associated with Stephen Colbert.

His attempts to blacklist my film reveal the way in which political correctness is just the flipside of old-fashioned tyranny. Any world view that subscribes to a pre-determined and inflexible moral code is just another form of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Judaic, Muslim, Buddhist, right-wing, or liberal.

The task of art, on the other hand, is to shake up all pre-conceptions and certainties in order to discover and express what has not previously been discovered and expressed. The stale trotting out of social issue documentaries that merely reconfirm what we already think is not art but propaganda. True art troubles and disturbs. It should be a thorn in the side of a viewer’s preconceptions and ultimately change how he or she sees the world.

I would go even further: any film that merely re-confirms our pre-existing values and ideas is not art. And yet, that’s exactly the kind of film that most festival programmers see fit to program these days.

Mr. Powers belongs to this category of politically correct programmers, but he isn’t the only one. His arrogance is symptomatic of a larger human problem, namely that, as human beings, we don’t really know what things are and yet act as if we do. Mr. Powers never bothered to reach out to me or to engage in any kind of dialogue. He never bothered to ask me my point of view on the ethical issues that my film raises. Instead, he decided to take it upon himself to try to stop my film from being seen. If he had at least done this openly and in public, others would have been able to weigh in. But he was not interested in hearing what anyone else had to say. And, clearly, he still isn’t.

Fortunately we live in a democracy in which I have the right to make a film that exposes his actions without fearing for my life. Filmmakers in other countries aren’t so lucky. THE SHEIK AND I embodies this paradox in complicated ways, but I strongly disagree with his simplistic assertion that my film is unethical. Rather, I would argue, it is Thom Powers’ behavior that is unethical, and it is an abuse of his power(s).

 

Barriers are what turn Mr. Zahedi on

The New York Times review came out today.

100 favorite films

My 100 favorite films.

Huffington

This Huffington Post interview came out today.

Factory 25

“Factory 25 to Release Caveh Zahedi’s Controversial Doc ‘The Sheik and I'” – http://tinyurl.com/c7dfhtg