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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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'The Sheik and I': Filmmaker's artistic freedom put to the test

A review of "The Sheik and I," a sporadically fascinating documentary about an independent Iranian-American filmmaker who is recruited to make a movie about an Arab country.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'The Sheik and I,' a documentary directed and produced by Caveh Zahedi. 108 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains brief rough language). Northwest Film Forum, through Wednesday.

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It all seemed so innocuous. At first.

Caveh Zahedi, an Iranian-American filmmaker best-known for "A Little Stiff" and a segment of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," was asked to make a movie for the Middle Eastern Biennial in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates.

Zahedi was promised "no restraints at all" on subject matter, tone or style, even though the festival's official theme was "art as a subversive act."

Once the script became specific, however, the storyline about a kidnapping (starring Zahedi's young son, Beckett) raised questions about the role of satire.

Would the movie mock the government? Would immigration policy become fair game? Was the self-absorbed Zahedi becoming unnecessarily paranoid? And what about his own self- esteem as a professional? Could he be backed into making a bad movie?

The title of "The Sheik and I" invites comparisons with "The King and I" that suggest criticisms of a dictatorship — in this case, the Sheik of Sharjah, whose daughter treats the Biennial as a pet project. The title also does more than hint at a Western approach that could be perceived as condescending.

As a movie within a movie, "The Sheik and I" doesn't add up to much. Like Albert Brooks' similar "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" (2006), it rambles. But as a documentary about East-West tensions and freedom of speech during the Arab Spring, it's frequently fascinating.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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