Caveh Zahedi’s I Am A Sex Addict

Cuneyt Cakirlar’s essay “Queer art of the parallaxed document: the visual discourse of docudrag in Kutlug Ataman’s Never My Soul!” asserts that the Turkish filmmaker Kutlug Ataman uses a variety of techniques (or perhaps, subversions of classic Hollywood technique) in order to “queer” the genres and visual identification associated with confessional documentary, pornography, reenactment, auto-ethnography and melodrama. As Cakirlar says, “The artist attempts to confront the viewer with the machinery of truth-making and self-invention.”

The goal of this confrontation is of course to criticize the problems and methodologies of those genres in their tendencies to affirm existing-dominant positions (Western, male, heterosexual) and to critique marginalized positions (non-Western, female, homosexual). As Cakirlar writes, “Ataman’s artworks position the spectator within a problematic arena where documentary realism as genre and ethnography as method are being constantly queered via both subjects’ and artist’s performative manipulations.”

One of Cakirlar’s methods was to film his subject/actor (a transvestite called Ceyhan), transcribe her dialogue, have Ceyhan relearn this transcript as a monologue, and then re-perform it for the camera. Cakirlar calls this conflation of scripted and unscripted material, extemporaneous action and performance “a kind of parallax view” that would “create a formal expression of her parallel situation” (362). The “parallax view” can be seen as an attempt to undermine cinema’s ability to approximate and formulate truth. I believe it is also an attempt to criticize film’s ability to become a powerful tool for propaganda and to align its spectator with characters that are usually male, straight, white, conservative, capitalist and Christian. The “parallax view” is a mode that calls the audience’s attention to the film’s artifice and intention – thereby weakening its ability to persuade an audience that truth is being documented – rather than created. Ataman’s quote from Cakirlar’s piece reads:

“Subjects like Ceyhan and Semina aid in the process of creating those metapieces, because they are constantly referring back to their roles as actresses and therefore instigating the viewer’s investigation into the nature of these assumed and prescribed relationships. Ultimately this artifice makes you realize how reality is created and how lies can be no less true that what is understood as truth. Truths are also fabricated.”

Caveh Zahedi’s experimental, mash-up film I Am A Sex Addict is also trying to subvert those methods of meaning-making and visual identification through various strategies as well as content. I Am A Sex Addict took Zahedi fifteen years to complete and chronicles a decade of Zahedi’s confusions and tribulations from sex addiction. Love and relationships are kindled/rekindled only to be seen sabotaged later by Zahedi’s compulsion, psychosis, and hubris. It is a painful and sluggish road to Zahedi’s realization about his disease and the steps necessary to regain healthy connections with women. I call Zahedi’s film a mash-up because it is a collage of so many disparate mediums, modes and techniques – mockumentary, documentary, reenactment, still images, footage from pre-existing projects, animated sequences, 35mm footage, audio recording, direct address, voice-over narration, and so on. The employment of so much (excess) “artifice” recalls the quote above as it calls attention to the process of filmmaking and asks the audience to question the truth of what is being presented.

While Zahedi is attempting to capture a perspective similar to the “parallax view” his concerns are not necessarily the same as Ataman’s.  I Am A Sex Addict is deeply confessional (perhaps autobiographical) and preoccupied with sex but not with transvestite or queer culture. Zahedi’s film is focused primarily on debunking the cinematic mythologies around male sexuality. This includes Zahedi’s awareness that cinema comes out of a problematic history (and continued practice) of voyeurism. This voyeurism seeks to empower men by indulging their fantasy of seeing helpless or victimized women while never being seen or interrogated in return. This voyeurism is one that seeks to align its viewers with male protagonists. In her book Film Editing: The Art of the Expressive, Valerie Orpen discusses Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and its assertion that “cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.” The intent of this “gaze” is to give the illusion that a male protagonist assumes control over his (sexual) universe. It also encourages the viewer to identify with the male protagonist and his desires since his point-of-view is the window by which we encounter that particular universe.

Zahedi is critical of both the method and the power attributed to male sexuality. His film attempts to undermine the male “gaze” in its attempts to render women as subjugated sex objects. Zahedi does this by making the character he portrays (and his ego) that which is subjugated and held out for scrutiny and humiliation. While his male protagonist (if we want to take this project as documentary we would say this is Zahedi himself – this would be no stretch of imagination as his character is called “Caveh Zahedi”) is overwhelmed by perverse desires to dominate and objectify women – those attempts are generally thwarted by his awkwardness, anxieties and confusion. When I say thwarted I do not mean that Zahedi’s character does not succeed in objectifying women – he does. But he is incapable of deriving the sort of pleasure or sustained relief he seeks from those experiences. Those scenes tend to lead immediately to meditations on shame, disgust, regret, loneliness and hopelessness. Sex scenes are not geared at finding pleasure in the nude female body or engagement in an intimate/secretive act. They instead focus on Zahedi’s lack of sexual appeal, his isolation and his ridiculousness. Direct address and voice-over narrations during sex scenes further undermine them as moments of pleasure-seeking – and they become silly, surreal or absurd. Zahedi’s monotone, unemotional acting style employed during recreations seems to emphasize the male’s ineptitude in trying to gain mastery over his female counterparts or his sexuality. To compound those humiliations being expounded, Zahedi frequently interjects during the course of the film to admit he has lost actual control of his production and his female actors. Indeed the didactic of the film is – how not to be/why not to identify with – its main character . . . $11

If you heart I Am A Sex Addict:

Recommendations by Quispy
Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor
James Marsh’s Man on Wire
Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop

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One Response to Caveh Zahedi’s I Am A Sex Addict

  1. Caveh Zahedi says:

    What’s striking to me about your piece is that Caveh Zahedi and Kutlug Ataman attended UCLA Film School at the time and were on friendly terms. Moreover, Kutlug Ataman was the roommate of Zahedi’s real-life girlfriend at the time, the one that the “Christa” character is based on.

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