Omar Mullick is a director and cinematographer known for his work on the documentary These Birds Walk, which was released by Oscilloscope and named as one of the best films of 2013 by the New Yorker, Indiewire and Sight & Sound. Trained as a photographer, Omar has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic and Time, receiving awards from the Doris Duke Foundation, the Western Knight Center for Journalism, Annenberg and Kodak. In 2009 he had a solo photographic show, Can’t Take It With You, at the Gallery FCB in New York City. Learn more at omarmullick.com.
To be a saint.
Consider that. There is a sweet madness to the desire, even medieval in its use of language. Unless you wrap the impulse in humor or, worse yet, irony, how could someone in our times of cynicism and reflex cleverness admit to it? But that was the moment I leaned in. Or rather, I was tugged in towards the screen like a fish on some suddenly visible line, and didn’t lean back until the film was done. The film was Caveh Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict. The next day, I watched the one remaining feature of his I had not yet seen: In the Bathtub of the World. His idea of recording a yearlong video diary in one minute segments spoke to my intellect, the discipline to see it through appealed to my sense of craft, but his admission, only 10 minutes into a film, that he wanted to be a saint — that stole my heart.
Caveh Zahedi’s box set Digging My Own Grave — a collection of more than 20 years of films — somewhat resists criticism through its overwhelming originality and singular attachment to some pretty big ideas. Zahedi takes on proving God’s existence, ego, even sainthood. Again and again, the films, both long and short, reveal a struggle to work out these questions in the face of a prevailing cinematic culture that is always going elsewhere. For some of his friends and peers writing in the DVD booklet, Caveh proceeds to answer these questions; for others, he is a narcissist or a charlatan. For me, his work may be one of the most passionate framings of a human question in current art: how to live, how to be a better man, and how to contend with the ego to do it.
But that sounds almost silly, doesn’t it, for someone known mostly for a film called I Am a Sex Addict? Don’t let the comedy fool you, though. I mean, it’s there all right: cringe-worthy, unannounced, explosive. It’s in the just-got-slapped look on his face as he sometimes addresses the camera, the perfect absence of social protocol in most of the interactions, even the tender and painful family dynamics, which are as complicated and heartbreaking as any. It’s in the day to day, and the drug excesses done in the name of enlightenment. But then look at the stylistic company he keeps: it was the same for the comedy of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, or James Joyce when he wrote Ulysses. Likewise, the films hurtle forward with a comedic ambition for a grand theory of everything, even as things fall apart. There is a sense that if the camera catches the falling apart, there is no falling apart, but an inclusion of only more life, more narrative. He is building the road as he walks on it. And so the films feel constantly alive, even seeing them now, after all these years.
So what’s in the box? There are the underground films which brought him to the attention of nerds and cineastes. A Little Stiff, which chronicles his college crush, using the actual girl who was the object of his affection to act out her role in this story of thwarted love. Then there is I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, a road trip where Caveh decides to let God direct the film as an act of faith, while hoping to rekindle bonds with his father and brother along the way. I Am a Sex Addict takes on all the Freudian complexity of life and addiction, and then In the Bathtub of the World, which I am convinced is his best work, and The Sheik and I, his most envelope-pushing work.
Digging My Own Grave contains also his short films, experiments, even interviews and acceptance speeches, and here we start getting at one of the larger revelations about this work. There are not really extra parts as much as they are all of a whole. Having so little, if arguably any, separation between life and art, the extras are not that at all, only a fleshing out of a life lived with increasing conviction to his ideas.
Plowing through this box set, I felt the admixture of nostalgia for my discovery of film’s possibilities and a kind of punk-rock sensibility for anyone who broke the rules. People got a lot of his early films wrong. They were even difficult to get hold of for a while, and if there is a chance that reading this could pique your interest, then I’ll share some of the moments that still resonate from his films. In The Bathtub of the World has a number of one-minute scenes that are daisy-chained into a year of Caveh’s life when he lived in San Fransisco with his girlfriend (and now wife) Mandy. He takes on job-loss, domestic life, meditation, classrooms, and gives us his personal thoughts on books and other artists, rendered with such sensitivity that even now you watch these scenes feeling you may have listened in on the whispers of his mind. In one of these moments, he speaks about hoping to find something salvational in each new book he buys. Paired with video stills of the books he bought, it is heartbreakingly beautiful, even pure, in its simple clarity. Another moment, in which Caveh comes home to find pigeons that have nested in his living room and tries to get them out of the window, is so unreal it would not be believed in fiction. How something could be so comedic and yet so visually lyrical is a secret better left unsolved, if only for the repeated delight that scene provides the viewer.
I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore is like no film experience you’ve had. The other day I mentioned it to another filmmaker friend who said that he shows the film to the documentary class he teaches at a local college as an example of how everything can go wrong and still go so right. I thought that was perfect. When I was in college, a friend of mine, Adam, and I had plans one Friday night. At my apartment as I got ready, I put the film on and asked that we watch the first 10 minutes before we ran out the door. The film opens with Caveh’s voice behind the opening credits, asking if the camera is rolling, and then he screams. We watched the film in its entirety, right through all the bits where Caveh begs his brother and father to do ecstasy with him in a motel in Vegas. When it was done, Adam paused, looked at me and said, “Let’s watch that again.” I rewound the tape. I don’t even remember where we were supposed to be that night. But even now, when I see Adam, he recollects his first viewing of the film and that evening.
In the essay that Caveh wrote to accompany this box set, much is made of failure. Even on this site, Caveh wrote about Lars von Trier and then addressed himself in the language of having repeatedly fallen short. But what does that mean when the stakes are this high? When the goal, for instance, is to prove the existence of God or to defeat the ego? The effort alone to take on these ideas courts such small company in cinema — Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bresson. These people tried to wrestle something of the Divine onto celluloid; perhaps an inevitable failure to pull it off is not the point. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It may be that this is the only measuring stick to use here. The overwhelming majority of the films do just that: fail better from one effort to the next, as Caveh refines his cinematic language and ideas, and solidifies tenets of his own beliefs. In terms of cinematic courage, he may have few peers.
But good cinema does not equal good theology, and here I may have run out of superlatives.
To his credit, Caveh includes in the box set reprints of emails and letters from people who think he is a fraud, that his films are terrible and what a narcissist he must be. Even if the tenor of these notes is extreme, they rest nonetheless on a rational anxiety about his method. If, as he believes, showing your flaws on film with radical honesty is a way to counter the ego, then to what degree is doing all this on film not just another egotistical act? At one point during In the Bathtub of the World, Mandy points out that he is being a jerk by pointing the camera at her during a fight. He responds that it is OK because he’s “being jerky for art.” It does not satisfy as an answer. And it is thin as an argument in the name of defeating ego. Sincerity aside, it just doesn’t add up. And that may be the stuff that rubs people raw, the stuff that unsettles those who have not bought in to his mission.
In The Sheik and I, Caveh sees delicious irony in a Bienniale about artistic license, held by a Sharjah Sheikh who puts stringent limits on his people’s freedom of speech. Caveh takes on the Sheikh as his topic, essentially using the film he was commissioned to make as a litmus test for the tolerance people profess. It is an idea worth looking at, but then the film reveals something I did not notice before. The ossifying of his creative method, a turning of art into religion, which has now hardened into little tolerance for the other religions it comes up against. In the film’s publicity videos, Caveh says flatly what God thinks: He doesn’t care about blasphemy. God likes jokes. Maybe, maybe not. But this is delivered now with the confidence of a self-evident truth, which smacks a lot of the very intolerance that seems to irk him. There are moments where even the safety of people on the ground in Sharjah takes second place to his work. The culture is mocked, easy stereotypes of Arabs and Islamic symbols abound. It does not feel like the pursuit of ego-removal or sainthood. It feels like fanaticism. It feels like the tyranny of an American liberal abroad, and that does not feel good. And you are forced to wonder whether the method of all this public ego-training did not in fact lead him straight into the corner he was avoiding.
I wonder what we, as fellow filmmakers, would say if we met. I would like to think I would tell him how much his films meant to me as a young college student, and even to my friends. But I would love also to talk about the region he ventured into, its language, its vibrance, the scholars there. He might like the Sufi tradition of gatherings where men move and recite in unison, losing themselves in Divinity, the entire goal to surrender their individuality, in a moment of transcendence, to the yearning of the whole. We live in a time now when the comfortable hegemony of the West must contend with voices from the Other: Africa, the Middle East, even Islam, and the list continues. Caveh has written eloquently about the dilemma of ego in the essay “Je est un autre.” Years ago it was one of the only things on his site, and I am glad to see that it is still there. It is worth reading for anyone who thinks my praise of his earlier work is misplaced, as he anticipates many of the complaints leveled at him. But as an argument, it may be that the need for a dialectic of push and pull with your ego in front of the screen is a better idea in theory than in practice.
However, this is all stuff to talk about if we ever crossed paths. And I must believe, given the courage of his work, that he would welcome it.
Lastly, given the narrow Western hallway of artists and intellectuals he cites — Kafka, Saint Augustine, Blanchot — I would bring up Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, a medieval mystic and theologian from Caveh’s own ancestral backyard. Al-Ghazali was born in 1058 in Tus, Persia, and from a young age was roundly acknowledged as a genius. He processed Hellenistic philosophy and Islamic theology with a dexterity and originality that has his work labored over even today, and he simply could not be beaten in an argument. Holding the pre-eminent academic position of his time, he realized one day that, for all his talk about God and religion, the vanity of his public post made him question what he was doing and his motives, and so he simply walked away. Years later, some students found him, and he cautioned people not to overvalue the world or the intellect over a humble, sincere heart. For almost a third of the world, the few books he wrote remain manuals of how to train the ego. In my work, I have traveled in the Middle East, to the subcontinent and North Africa, and I have yet to pass through a country where people didn’t mention his name in awe. We may or may not have aspirations to be saints, but I believe Al-Ghazali was one. And if he wasn’t, well, they don’t exist.
Can you remove the ego while insisting on being in the public gaze? Or would that mean stepping out of the public gaze like Al-Ghazali?
Watch these films. You decide.
If Caveh is right, the path to sainthood goes through the public square in a loud confessional of sins and vulnerabilities laid out for all to see. And if he is wrong, then we are not meant to be ranting in the public square about others and our flaws. And calling attention to our sins in the name of humility is a sham. If you want to fight ego, you pull yourself out of the picture because you remove the need to call attention to yourself. You put down the camera. You close the laptop. You lower the pen. You put down the addiction to express. You would stop filming that video diary, you would stop writing that film review, and, for a moment, that ego, without the compulsion to say anything more, would be gone.