May 08, 2002



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Zero hour

THE REVELATORY NATURE of San Francisco indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi's work means that if you didn't already know he was once a sex addict, you someday will, when his I Am a Sex Addict plays Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2003. But another startler comes your way this week: he was also, once upon a time, planning to become a terrorist. Not in any particularly well-worked-out way, but his portion of the tag-team response to the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath – the "Underground Zero" program opening at the Roxie this week and moving on to the Rafael Film Center and Fine Arts Cinema shortly after – is a film called "The World Is a Classroom," in which he tells his post-Sept. 11 class at the San Francisco Art Institute that, back in the late '70s, he wanted to put his Yale education to use as an eco-terrorist, a nuclear power-plant exploder. Back before he became a pacifist, he and his friends even wanted to make a pact that when they got older, they would get a car bomb, drive it into the Pentagon, and blow it up. He has since made a major U-turn. "None of us want to do it now," he tells the class in his video, grimly, just days after the real attack on the Pentagon.

Zahedi was working on those blasphemous statements during the censorious climate of the past winter, when even Susan Sontag's factually accurate assessment of the word coward brought out seething hatred from every corner of these United States. If there was ever a moment that needed real alternatives to the sinister Muzak being piped into our brains by major media, this was it, and "Underground Zero" 's combination of reverence, sadness, satire, anger, and poetry answers the call. A quickly put-together response to September's events, the program moves from Frazer Bradshaw's "The End of Summer," a suburban child's-eye view ("Maybe they were mad at New York?"), to Norman Cowie's "Scene from an Endless War," which mocks the media monotone, to Zahedi's "The World Is a Classroom," in which the power plays between teacher and students in an S.F. Art Institute classroom parallel the strife outside it, to Valerie Soe's "Carefully Taught," which has Soe talking about America's politics over scenes of bawdy, false "innocence" from movie musicals, to Jay Rosenblatt's "Prayer," which finds a poetic link between fear and naïveté, Muslims and Christians, the duck-and-cover drill and prayer, all set to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

Rosenblatt, who's known Zahedi for a decade, says both of the filmmakers were feeling unfocused, isolated, and alone back in September, and somehow the projects they'd been working on – an Anita Bryant piece for Rosenblatt, the aforementioned I Am a Sex Addict for Zahedi – didn't seem quite to the point. They put out the "Underground Zero" call to filmmakers and venues and got a quick and generous response, in the form of not only tapes but also interest from HBO, the Sundance Channel, and distributors. That Rosenblatt is Jewish and Zahedi's parents are Muslim "didn't come into play," Rosenblatt says; it was just a fortuitous coincidence given the subject matter.

Seven months after the fact, with growing zones of world turmoil, they're taking the long view. They've added a few pieces and subtracted others from the program but aren't attempting to "explain" the shifting present. Zahedi says, "I feel like this film is going to be an important document in 20 years."

Like recent press on I Am a Sex Addict, his own piece of "Underground Zero" leaves him exposed in an ugly clash with one of his students, which is the point. "What I do is to try to make the private public and vice versa." (Susan Gerhard)

'Underground Zero' plays Wed/8-Tues/14, Roxie Cinema, S.F.; Fri/10-Thurs/16, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; Fri/10-Fri/17, Fine Arts Cinema, Berk. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.