American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi professes to know nothing about Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, when he accepts a $15,000 commission to make a movie there on the theme of "subversion" for an arts fair. He recounts the debacle in direct address, as if staring at a computer screen, but only late in the project does he bother to Google Sharjah's strict leader and Islamic culture. Instead, with naiveté that seems willful or faked, Zahedi and crew blunder around the emirate, trying to make some kind of satire in the streets with guest workers (Palestinian, Indian, Pakistani) justifiably nervous about provoking the authorities. Zahedi, of course, is protected by his U.S. passport, and even drags his wife and small son on this very peculiar vacation. Always a confessional, solipsistic artist (see I Am a Sex Addict, his previous release), Zahedi is unable to separate his "almost religious" passion for filmmaking from actual religious sensitivities. Among the many snippets from his apparently unfinished movie, he has Indian children do a dance routine based on Islamic prayer. He films a scene about the kidnapping of Sharjah's autocratic ruler, Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, then gets all puffy and defensive when his hosts gently tell him "That's too much." Though his parents are Iranian, Zahedi evinces no knowledge of Islam—other than to joke that "I don't want to end up like Salman Rushdie." There's no danger of that in this movie, a shallow publicity stunt by a would-be jester who never even manages to mock the sheik in question.
Ugly Americans? Zahedi and crew.
Runs Fri., Nov. 16-Wed., Nov. 21 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 109 minutes.