This is how Caveh Zahedi approached his friend The Yes Men’s Jacques Servin, “Let’s get stoned together and brainstorm ideas for a web series on how to overthrow the US government!”
That pretty much sets the tone for the web series turned documentary that emerged from Zahedi’s enlisting a class of college students to work on this theme, and learn about filmmaking in the process.
Zahedi studied philosophy before turning to film as a medium for exploring social themes. A fan of the dissolute poet Arthur Rimbaud, he is in some ways a throwback to 1960s counterculture, spectacularly self-indulgent and rebelling against any sort if orthodox yardstick.
He begins by bringing together a group of students in a time wasting fake audition process (‘They’re all adorable’, he says after revealing the group was already enrolled anyway) and sets them the task of coming up with ideas for the theme. The resulting footage ended up becoming an 88-minute documentary, the latest in Zahedi’s controversial catalogue. The most commercially successful is I Am a Sex Addict (2006), documenting his ten-year struggle to overcome his addiction to prostitutes. More recently, The Show About the Show (2015-2019) is a TV show about its own making in which each episode tells the story of the making of the previous episode. The format says something about Zahedi’s almost obsessional self-reflective style.
An early work, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1995), started as an attempt to prove the existence of God and ends with Zahedi persuading his father and half-brother to take ecstasy with him on film.
The format in How to Overthrow the US Government (Legally) is 90% talking heads as the students adapt to and wrestle with Zahedi’s capricious and elliptical process for eliciting ideas. A clever deconstruction of pedagogic teaching or simply narcissism of the highest order? Most of the strategies devolve into hour upon hour of composing and rebutting emails, many of them involving a petty incident incited by Zahedi when he had an altercation with college staff in the first week of filming.
The culturally diverse students seem for the most part to have good intentions. They express feeling disaffected by the political climate of America and want to make a difference. Most of them, and Servin, are frustrated by Zahedi.
‘Caveh just doesn’t listen,’ is a constant complaint.
‘We’re just talking about talking,’ says another.
Zahedi veers from a dictatorial style to turning the class into a sort of therapy encounter group in a couple of sessions. One student described it as a relief.
‘For the first time, coming to Caveh’s class, it didn’t feel like an anxiety attack.’
Others are more critical. What was supposed to be a ‘laboratory of ideas’ becomes, as one student describes it, ‘circle jerking.’
When the students realise Servin and Zahedi are creating their own web show parallel to the assigned show with them, one says, not unreasonably, ‘Why don’t they just concentrate on this show and make it better?’
After the bogged down processes in the classroom, it’s almost a shock when the students mobilise to attend the protest against the Brett Cavanagh verdict. You can see them light up, find purpose, and focus as they film and debate. Meanwhile, Zahedi and Servin try to gate crash an exclusive club. No one quite knows why.
Then it’s back to the hot, airless classroom and the interminable emails. Or screening a lengthy video of Servin on a failed canvassing trail.
It’s a little like The Breakfast Club, with no direction and where the evolution isn’t so much self-awareness as whether they can adapt to Zahedi’s chaotic closed environment. Some students who hated Zahedi seem to be won over by him at the end. A low point is when the students are encouraged to do caricature impressions as part of the course evaluation. There’s a nice bit of pointed satire in evaluating the course overall against the college scale. The score is pretty much zero.
“I think my main political experience, which I think most Americans share, is the feeling of powerlessness: a sense of ‘there’s nothing I can do’,” Zahedi said in a IFFR interview. “I think that’s true, we are all pretty powerless. It’s a bad feeling, a malaise, that’s hard to live with. We all want to do something but what can we actually do? Marx said: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.”
Judge for yourself if Zahedi’s work is symptom, cause or cure.