“Not only is it personal — it’s downright embarrassing.”
Fourteen years in the making and spanning eighteen years, Caveh Zahedi’s I am a Sex Addict, despite a lukewarm reaction upon its initial release, might be the most important film of the new century and will eventually find its place as a major achievement in world cinema.
Talking directly to the camera on his wedding day, Zahedi uses reenactments, animation, home movies, photographs, and other visual aids to tell the detailed story of his sexual addiction; focusing close attention on the suffering he’s caused the women in his life. Not afraid of the unflattering self-portrait that emerges, Zahedi plainly shows us the considerable lengths to which he goes to feed his addiction and painstakingly examines his inner struggle to face it. When it is over, aside from being entertained, informed, and ultimately moved, we’re left asking how much of it is true. The answer, according to the filmmaker and subject, is all of it.
Ridiculous, embarrassing, and unquestionably courageous, I am a Sex Addict is what Caveh Zahedi rightly calls a public service announcement. If only all PSAs were this entertaining.
There is so much to appreciate about this film, but mostly I appreciate the truth that’s expressed. Yet the question begs to be asked: If a part of your life unfolds in such a way that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to drama, do you flirt with bending or even completely breaking the truth to serve the film?
I don’t. What interests me more is the challenge of trying to find a way to make it work on film.
When anyone releases a film, they are instantly made vulnerable. Would you say with a film like this you’re made doubly vulnerable because it’s so personal?
I would say a film like this is triply vulnerable. It’s not just personal — it’s actually embarrassing.
But you’ve never really made a film that wasn’t personal and potentially embarrassing. Isn’t that true?
That’s true. But this is by far the most embarrassing film I’ve made. It’s hard because I teach and, the first day of class, someone is always going to ask, “What was your last film about?” So with relationships on the student-teacher level it’s especially awkward.
Can you explain the difference between the tuxedoed Caveh who talks to the camera in the film and the Caveh I’m speaking to now?
The one you’re talking to now is a better actor.
Well, whenever the camera is on, you really have to not only be yourself, but be yourself in a very specific way that the viewer will get exactly X from. Like when I talk to you, I’m not trying to control the precise effect as much because it doesn’t matter. It can be read in different ways by different people. But with a film you’re going for a very specific effect, so you have to have a very specific delivery, intonation and manner, which is very contrived. I do lots and lots of takes, and it’s not the ones that seem the most natural to me that we end up using. It’s a tricky balance of humor, information, vulnerability, etc.
You break the “fourth wall” by talking to the audience directly. Would you say you broke the “fifth wall” by stopping the narrative to talk about and show the actual actresses and each of their real-life problems with the production?
Yeah. That’s a good way to put it.
It gets really interesting for me when you cut to a quick behind-the-scenes shot of the actress Amanda Henderson, with a drink in her hand. Your voiceover tells us that she — the actress — has a drinking problem in real life. Then you cut right back to the story. I found it hard to reenter the story and think about her character; I was still thinking about the actress. Instead of being impatient with this, I found it even more interesting, but I imagine you’ve had audiences that found it frustrating.
They haven’t. I think people have become sophisticated enough that they actually watch everything with a double perspective. And I think cinema hasn’t caught up with the viewers in this case. I think my film does. I think people really appreciate that moment because they’re already doing that when they watch a movie. They’re already seeing it both as the actor and the character simultaneously.
There’s a particularly shameful moment in the film that has the potential to lose vast members of the audience instantly. It’s when you admit that it was only when the prostitute says, “Rape me,” that you were compelled to have sex with her. For me this is one of the most important moments in the film and I’m glad you were brave enough to include it, but I’m sure it was a difficult decision, since you profess a tremendous amount of respect for women in general. You must have battled with the question, “Must I tell the total truth? Won’t ALMOST the total truth be enough?”
Yes. I definitely have that struggle. That, for me, was a dividing-line moment for the film. I think you’re right — half the audience we lose there and half we don’t. And the whole film’s challenge was, can we get away with that? Can we have that happen and still have the audience stay with us? In Europe it’s very different, but in America, when that scene comes on, a cold chill goes through the audience. And I lose them.
The question was, “What am I trying to say?” That was an important thing for me to say because it was part of the message of the film. This stuff is not only shameful, but it also has all kinds of social and political ramifications, which is why the story is important.
For me, the whole question of rape in our society and how that affects our perception of our own sexual drives is really something no one talks about, and is really an important part of the shame and psychosexual dynamics of attraction. So that was a key thing. There were certainly things I did not include that I thought were just too much for the viewer. But it’s not that I’m ashamed of them. It’s just that you kind of have to understand your audience and what their cultural assumptions are, and how far you can push them. I pushed them as far as I felt I could push them and still have a film that could get out in the world.
Watching the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD, I saw an expression on your face that I recognized. It was the particular pain that comes with film production. Do you enjoy production at all?
I do enjoy production. I think it’s probably my favorite part of the process. If I could have my way, I would be directing every day on sets, all day. I don’t enjoy post-production nearly as much as production.
I’m shocked. I would have thought you enjoyed the puzzle that is waiting for you in the editing room.
I hate that part. It’s so painful to see what you’ve got and to try to make it work. And it’s so slow and it’s so lonely. I don’t like editing very much. I like the idea phase, when you come up with the ideas. That’s probably the most fun. And I just love the on-set-trying-to-get-it-right part. It’s definitely painful, but it’s also exhilarating.
People who are addicted to Internet pornography are also considered sex addicts. Even though it’s a very different kind of addiction, I imagine they also can relate to your story. Have you gotten responses from people that have that specific addiction or think they do?
Wow. I really feel like this is a healing film.
It’s a public service announcement.
It really is. Which is why I don’t understand your reaction to its initial release. I’ve read that you’re disappointed with how the film has done. Surely, as a lover of film history, you must know that everything that’s been new and important throughout film history has initially been met with indifference or worse.
It’s completely a financial thing. I’m broke. I have to teach to pay my rent. And I spend dozens of hours each week doing something that I don’t want to be doing, when I could be making twice as many films if I wasn’t doing it. So that’s all it is. You want to be able to do what you love and do more of it, and if the film doesn’t do well, I can’t. It’s just that simple.
But in other interviews you’ve also talked about becoming more commercial with each film and wanting to keep that going in order to reach a wider audience. That worries me.
It worries me too. But I think I did that with Sex Addict. I made certain choices for commercial reasons that weren’t really my preference or what I find most radical. To me this film feels much more compromised than my other films. It’s also the film that the greatest number of people seem to enjoy, and it’s made it possible for me to maybe make another one.
You just have to pick your battles. I feel like I’ve made films that are utterly uncompromising and as good as anything out there, but that very few people have seen or have any interest in seeing. Maybe they’ll become very important films one day and that would be great. But I just have to be able to keep making films. The real question for me is, “How is it possible to continue?” I’m just trying to find a way to do that. I don’t mind the compromises in the sense that there is always a tension or a balance or a dialectic between who you are and what the world is. What any artist does, is to find a dialectical process or relationship with the world that works for both the artist and the world. Every artist has done this. Mozart. Beethoven. They tried to please their patrons and at the same time express themselves. Great work can be done that way. I even think you can argue that better work can be done if it’s not just you speaking to yourself but you speaking to others in the world, with their own views and limitations and differences from you.
I really think the transition from adolescence to maturity is realizing that other people are different from you. They’re not just going to come to you and say, “Oh, that’s so strange. I bet it’s brilliant! Even though I don’t get it, it must just be me who doesn’t get it.” I really think in early youth we’re very self-centered in our relationships. As we get more mature emotionally, we really start to see the other person, not just as a projection of us, but as someone different from us that we can actually give to and grow toward. I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do in my relationship to the world. I’m trying to grow toward it, and possibly the future will be different than the present and it will require different kinds of compromises or adjustments than the present does.
You’ve said that when you were young you wanted to be a commercial filmmaker, but one day you had a particularly powerful LSD trip that changed your perception of the kind of films you wanted to make. From that point, you said, you wanted to make personal films. Do you think maybe you need more LSD?
Well, you know, people change. Like right now I have a bunch of different film projects. One is my favorite, and to me it’s the most radical and the most exciting. But I can’t get any money for it, and nobody would ever distribute it.
Can I ask what it is?
It’s another autobiographical film. It’s very personal but in a completely different style from anything I’ve done before. To me it would be the most important film that I could make in terms of the history of cinema and the future of cinema. But how can I make it? I don’t have the time or money to devote to it because all my energies are going to surviving.
If you somehow got the money to make it, would you, without hesitation, spend the time to make it? Or would you consider the possibility of making other films that might better secure you a place commercially?
I think the question for me isn’t so much about which film would be most likely to secure me a place commercially, because clearly I’d rather make a film I believe in than a film I don’t believe in. It’s more about what would happen to the film after I made it because there would be no means of distributing it. I could put it in a safety deposit box and hope that posterity finds the key. But what I want is very simple: It might be a delusion, but if I can make a few films that are interesting to me and radical, but also commercially viable — which Sex Addict was an attempt to do — then perhaps I’ll have enough money and esteem to actually make the less commercial films. So it seems like something I shouldn’t do just yet, and then hopefully live long enough to do.
With the current reality craze in full stride, you’d think Sex Addict would be a much more marketable film.
Yeah. I thought that, but I was amazed at how hard it was to get this film into the world.
The ending is very powerful and moving. Was that your actual wedding day?
Yes. I got there at like two in the afternoon to shoot all the wedding addresses.
Wait — don’t tell me all the tuxedo stuff was shot on your actual wedding day.
No. I tried to shoot it all that day. I started at like two and the wedding was at six. So I talked for four hours to the camera. All of the wedding guests were in the church waiting and I knew I couldn’t do the last shot twice. I did a lot of takes, but it didn’t feel right. And then the church people were pounding on the door, saying we had to begin. The guests had been waiting for like a half hour. I said, “Okay. One last take. I promise.” And they said, “Okay. This is the last one. We’re gonna start the organ music now.” And we said, “Okay. Fine. Roll.” And it rolled, and I started tearing up. I knew right away that this was good. Then we went in and I got married.
You’re the only guy who would choose to do such a stressful thing on an already stress-filled day.
It was like the best day of my life. I got the ending of my film, and I got married to the love of my life at the same moment. It was like a simultaneous orgasm.