An Open Letter of Apology to Caveh Zahedi
[NOTE: Caveh replied, and graciously agreed to let me post his reply. You can find it below.]
Dear Mr. Zahedi,
You and I have never met. I have some fairly clear recollections of having been at a few screenings that you also attended, and I think we may have a few acquaintances in common, but we have not been introduced. I am writing this letter, one I’ve been silently composing in my mind for quite some now, to let you know that I was, to a large extent, personally responsible for keeping your film, In the Bathtub of the World, out of the 2001 San Francisco International Film Festival. It was a mistake, and I am sorry.
I realize that in this particular instance, “sorry” may not cut it. I believe it was in early 2003, though it was possibly late 2002, that the Bay Guardian ran a feature story on you and your work, focusing on your in-progress sex-addict project. In the brief discussion of Bathtub, there was an angry quote by Richard Linklater regarding the SFIFF’s rejection of the piece. I can’t find it right now, but it went something like, “If a work like that is getting rejected, what’s the point of the festival?” It was then that I really felt personally responsible and answerable for this mistake, and I figured the least I could do was offer some explanation – hopefully one a little more useful than that provided by whatever form letter was mailed to your house.
I trust you’ve served on a festival jury at one time or another. (Maybe not. Maybe the very act of judging other people’s work, without them there to defend it, as in a classroom crit, is repellant to you. I don’t know.) But if you have, you know that most works don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve. Even under the best circumstances – the jurors being fresh, rested and ready; an open-minded assembly of intelligent cinephiles; a good long length of time for the process --, most screener tapes will get about five to ten minutes in the VCR, max. This isn’t news. People know this. And people also know that, regrettably, this process tends to reward a particular kind of film. Filmmakers who front-load their films with dazzling opening scenes will get more attention from jurors than the works might in themselves merit. Auteurism wells up in the breast of even the most theory-skeptical viewer, since a known-quantity director will provide a framework for considering the new piece. Tapes labeled “Joseph A. Bleaux” and “Béla Tarr” will not receive equal consideration. It’s a regrettable by-product of the process.
In the case of Bathtub, here’s how things broke down. There were six jurors on the Bay Area Documentary jury. With around 150 submissions to go through, we broke into two subcommittees of three, powering through the 75-sum-odd tapes in our box. The object of the subcommittee was to come back with four semi-finalists, and the eight selected films would be watched and voted on by the committee as a whole. My committee selected our four, and these were pretty varied, since we had rather divergent tastes. (I tend to be a formalist, especially where documentary is concerned. Juror #2 seemed to me to value more traditional ethnographic doc work, and #3 was pitched somewhere between me and #2.) If memory serves, only one of our final four, Promises, made it to the festival.
The other subcommittee returned with three “firm” selections, and four other pieces that were all vying for the fourth slot. That is, when we all convened for the final screenings, we were not ready to go, since the other committee asked me, #2 and #3 to quickly examine these four semi-semi-finalists and determine which one would be the eighth film watched in its entirety. (Why couldn’t they decide? Apparently their group was much more divergent and contentious than ours, and yet, nobody wanted to just pull rank and say, “Sorry you like that one, but I don’t, and it’s out.”) Bathtub was one of the four semi-semi-finalists.
So basically, the three of us were given about five minutes to look at your film. The tape wasn’t rewound, so what I saw was just a random stretch in the middle. (I seem to recall that the excerpt included you hiding behind a fern. I really need to re-watch Bathtub to be sure.) The thing is, at the time, I had never seen any of your work. I didn’t know who you were, or what your project was. And (if I may be so bold to say) I think Bathtub requires some familiarity with your diaristic style and your philosophy / theology of realism in order to fully connect. That’s not to say it can’t serve as a starting point for engaging with your work. (A lot of folks are no doubt discovering you through Bathtub. I’m so happy to have seen it on IFC.) But without any context, and without seeing the experiment as you set it up, well, Bathtub was just completely illegible to me. “Oh, it’s Caveh!” one of the jurors said. “Yeah, it’s his new daily piece,” said another. But I didn’t know what I was seeing, and it just felt tedious and self-involved to me. Formless, artless, flat. I could only understand it through my prior filmic associations, so it looked like an underachieving diary film. None of the rigor of Jonas Mekas, none of the sustained wit of Ross McElwee, none of the brittleness or nerve-jangling tension of Anne Robertson. Just a comment, then another, then a plant, and then you listening to music, I think. “This is insufferable,” I said. The room went quiet. “What’s this guy’s deal?”
“Well, he’s trying to record his thoughts and feelings over a year,” someone weakly offered, but that was pretty obvious, and not so helpful. I was tired, underfed, I had to start teaching my class at Berkeley at 9 am the next day, it was already 9 pm, and the other group hadn’t been considerate enough (so it seemed at the time) to make their own decisions.
“Look, I can’t stand this.” And someone stopped the tape. And that was that.
In the intervening years, I discovered your work, and a lot of it I really think is mindblowing. A friend recommended that I rent A Little Stiff, and I still think it’s painfully brilliant. I like how it brings excruciating self-exposure into dialogue with the rigorous self-reflexivity of the re-enactments. As wonderful as, say, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf films are, they almost always use the reflexivity as another layer of mastery, a demonstration of filmmaking prowess and analytical skill. In your film, it’s an exposure of absolute lack of mastery, of an ethical examination of your own behavior in relation with others. While TAing for Irina Leimbacher’s Documentary class, I had occasion to see I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, which I think is even more amazing. The willingness to orchestrate filmic (as well as chemical) experiments on your loved ones, with the faith that your love for them will be the guarantor of both truth and (ultimately) safety, is unspeakably powerful. And your willingness to expose their gently mocking betrayal of you (which, as I’m sure you know, also came from a place of love) is shattering, but again, ethical. You put yourself on the line in these works, and you never shrink away from the consequences.
It was after seeing these two great works that I remembered you, and Bathtub, and the jury. And Jesus, did I feel like a jejune, uninformed imbecile. I watched it (the whole thing this time!) when it debuted on IFC. Now, I must admit, despite my contrition, that I don’t think it is quite as successful as Stiff or Las Vegas. I understand, and appreciate, its structure as a series of semi-disconnected nows, whose succession does not guarantee relationality or even coherence. This flared up in my mind again, since recently I’ve been delving into Maurice Pialat’s work, and his mode of depicting the passage of time with an undefined straight-cut reminds me of the overall impact of Bathtub. Just like Pialat’s characters will seem like totally different people from scene to scene (and they are, since time has had its way with them between the shots), you mutate from day to day in all sorts of bizarre, unnerving ways. Your “diary” is not a registration of identity. It’s a dispersion, managed across a finite span of time. And as such, fragmentation and non-linear development are a part of its textual organization. It’s designed to be an “imperfect” text.
Without seeing it in terms of your work’s development (or even the development of the film itself), there was really no way I could be qualified to respond to Bathtub. And yet, that’s just the position I was in. I mean, sure, we’re all growing and learning more every day. Five or six years ago, I couldn’t stand Truffaut. I found him cloying. Now I see things differently. But so what? My own personal engagement with the canon is less potentially destructive than my dismissal of a film like Bathtub in 2001. Inclusion in the festival might have provided exposure at a time when you needed it. For the record, none of the films that my jury placed in the festival seem to me to be as interesting as Bathtub is to me now. In my memory, Promises (a very different kind of film, obviously) comes close, as does Lawrence Andrews’ We Just Tellin’ Stories (the one piece I was really excited about at the time).
So I blew it. And while I can’t really make this up to you, I though that maybe by explaining how this lame-assed decision came to pass, I’d give you, I dunno, a good laugh at my expense, or an additional layer of perspective on how ridiculous the structures of exhibition are for independent artists. And hey, if you’re ever running a tad low on grant money, send me an email. I don’t have much to spare myself, but still, in the very truest sense, I owe you one.
And, much to my pleasure, Mr. Zahedi replied thus:
Someone pointed out your open letter to me on the internet today. I found it fascinating. And I was touched. Thank you for your apology.
My films get rejected by so many festivals (not to mention distributors) that I am pretty used to it by now. But it felt good to hear what you had to say.
I disagree with you, however, about In the Bathtub of the World. I, personally, think it is my best film, and not because it is my most recent. I think it is better than the film I am finishing up right now. Of course, these things are radically subjective, but that's how it seems to me.
In any case, you are forgiven.
Wishing you the best,