INTERVIEW WITH CAVEH ZAHEDI: "When I was a kid, I was a compulsive liar"

MATTHEW: Hello, Caveh. After discovering you through Waking Life years ago, I have tried to sniff out any of your work I can find and have watched all your major releases. What have you made that you’re most proud of?

CAVEH: Gee. It’s like asking which of your children you prefer. I guess I’m most proud of whichever ones are the least popular. In my case, that would probably be The Sheik and I and I Was Possessed By God.

M: Richard Linklater once said that your “body of work will be like a lengthy Walt Whitman poem. It will be a ‘Song of Myself.’ It will be one of the greatest poems ever written, because it applies to everybody.” Have you ever felt drawn to Whitman’s work, and do you see any parallels between it and your own?

C: I like Whitman and I definitely see parallels. But I feel much closer to Wallace Stevens, who has probably been the biggest single influence on my work. His relationship to “Reality” with a capital “R” is the source from which almost everything I do springs.

M: You’ve said that you love the Biography genre, and you seem to seek out artists, thinkers, and art that give you a sense of salvation. Who was the first person to do this for you, and who is the most recent?

C: I think Van Gogh was probably the first big biographical influence. He’s such a “pure” artist. Most recently, I’ve become obsessed with Joseph Cornell.

M: As a self-proclaimed theist, you often explore the influence of “divinity” in your films, perhaps most explicitly in I Dont Hate Las Vegas Anymore, In the Bathtub of the World (which you said “exploits the most democratic genre that exists, the home movie, in order to reveal the workings of the divine in all of our lives”), and I Was Possessed by God. However, in your latest film, The Sheik and I, and your new web-series, The Show About the Show, you haven’t, to my knowledge, used that type of ‘spiritual’ language to describe them. Is this deliberate? Do you still desire to channel the divine in your work?

C: The Sheik and I does, in fact, traffic in spiritual language. If anything, the whole film is a polemic about what God is (and isn’t) and the main reason the film got banned is because the people who funded it decided it was “blasphemous.”

You’re right, however, about The Show About the Show. I’m trying to channel the divine in that one too, but I haven’t been explicit about it. This hasn’t been a deliberate choice and it actually never occurred to me until you brought it up. If it has been an unconscious choice, it probably has something to do with trying to appeal to a larger audience. But it could enter the show explicitly at any time. It just hasn’t yet.

M: One thing I love about your films and web-series is their DIY approach and aesthetic, which I presume is often due largely to financial limitations. If you didn’t have those limitations, how would your approach and aesthetic change?

C: I guess there’s a whole worldview and ethics implicit in the DIY approach and aesthetic, so in that sense, my approach and aesthetic probably wouldn’t change all that much. But I am trying to do a “bigger” film at the moment, and the aesthetic of that is radically different from anything I’ve done before, but it’s still weirdly DIY in a sense.

M: You’ve expressed optimism toward digital technology, especially in its relation to “democratizing” filmmaking, and you are now taking advantage of the short form as well as sites like YouTube to make your work more accessible. Do you usually want your work to be ‘of the time’, or is that not something you think about much?

C: I’m more interested in making work that endures than I am in making work that is “of the time.” That said, making work that is accessible to a contemporary audience is essential to being able to get the funding needed to continue making work, so in that sense, it is something that I think about a lot.

M: It’s hard to imagine anyone executing a project like The Show About the Show better than you, as it does what you seem to do best: complicate the distinctions between performance and reality, between designed renderings and uninhibited vulnerability. In some ways, social media seems to do the same thing. It explores the intersections between contrivance and openness/candidness (for example, a crying selfie). What impact do you see the internet having on our notions of honesty?

C: The ego will always step in to co-opt any and all openness/candidness for the sake of some form of self-aggrandizement. It’s just the human condition. My work is an attempt to shed light on that process and to bring a little consciousness back into the equation. The ego is tricky but so is art.

M: At the heart of the show, as with your films, is honesty. A rebellious response to the lack of honesty that most of us see every day. Were you always so dedicated to honesty and confessional modes of expression?

C: When I was a kid, I was a compulsive liar. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that honesty was a better way to go. I think I just found that lying made me unhappy and that honesty, despite the many ways in which it gets you in trouble, made me feel more at peace in the world.

M: In relation, you said recently that your students say things like, “You can be a teacher and say this stuff?” Do you find teaching to be fulfilling, overall?

C: I do. I like teaching. In a lot of ways, it’s not that different than making films. A Course in Miracles says that everyone is always teaching. That seems true to me. Filmmaking is a form of teaching. But so is walking down the street. So is deciding what to wear each day. Teaching is what we all do all the time.

M: At what stage is your film about Joseph Cornell in right now? It seems bound to be very different from your previous films. Can you tell us a bit about it?

C: It’s currently in the casting phase, which is a phase that can go on forever. I was hoping to shoot it this Fall but The Show About The Show is taking up all of my free time right now so it’s looking like it will probably get pushed back to next Spring or Summer. Both BRIC and I underestimated how long it would take to complete each episode of The Show About The Show. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so it’s basically impossible to set a timetable for each episode. To quote Wallace Stevens, art is “the finding of a satisfaction.” Depending on how easily satisfied you are, that “finding” can take a long time.

M: Thank so much, Caveh!