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Caveh Zahedi has so many stories to tell

  • >> Sophie Haigney, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-30 18:09:23 BdST

Caveh Zahedi was in a closet in a Brooklyn Heights apartment on a recent Sunday, trying to figure out how to end the story he was telling. He had been talking about a college class he’d taken with the filmmaker Michael Roemer. When Roemer saw Zahedi’s class project, a film titled “Sex and Violence,” he said, “‘I think you need serious help; you really need to be in therapy,’” Zahedi recalled. He cried on the spot when he heard those words.

Zahedi told this story during the 18th recording session of “365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die,” his first project undertaken specifically for audio. Zahedi, 61, is a filmmaker best known for experimental personal work like the 2005 movie “I Am a Sex Addict” and, more recently, “The Show About the Show,” an autobiographical television series that began in 2015, in which each episode is about the making of the previous one.

In the closet-turned-recording-studio, Zahedi tried to convey that he looked back on Roemer’s harsh words with gratitude. His producer, Leon Neyfakh, told him to try the ending again. “You kind of mangled ‘gratitude,’” Neyfakh said. “Mangled the word ‘gratitude,’ or the concept?” Zahedi asked with a laugh. At last, he landed somewhere that, for Zahedi, seemed appropriate: “I always thought of him with complete fondness and as a real artist who just had integrity and spoke his truth.”

This might summarise an aspiration for this podcast, which has been released daily since Jan. 1. Each episode is a story, usually one to five minutes long. It is unusually brief in form and unusually intimate in content. Ex-wives appear, as do former girlfriends and crushes. He discusses drug use, sexual encounters, difficult family relationships and unrealised projects. He is alternately sympathetic and less so; in some episodes about childhood he is the bully and in others the victim — but he talks about both experiences with a kind of understated, exploratory openness.

This honesty is a hallmark of his work. During Season 2 of “The Show About the Show,” his marriage fell apart, and the show became a record of its dissolution. But “365 Stories” is more expansive. The challenge of telling daily stories has pushed him to mine every aspect of his life.

“I basically talk about almost every single person in my life, and almost always in a way that is not fully positive,” Zahedi said. Sometimes, there are consequences: After an episode about his experience as a sperm donor and about connecting with his biological daughter, she became deeply angry.

In one story, told during this recording session, he reduced a college girlfriend to sobs after he argued with her mother, calling her “bourgeois.”

“I didn’t understand why she was crying so much just because her mom was mad at me, but it’s because she knew it was over,” he said. This is a quintessential Zahedi story; he is not the protagonist, actively hurting someone, but is retroactively aware of the specifics of the pain, which he articulates so honestly that it’s moving.

The podcast began during lockdown last June, when Neyfakh reached out to Zahedi, saying he liked his work and suggesting an audio project. They met in Brooklyn Bridge Park that day. “I got there, and he was sitting on a bench with a digital recorder,” Neyfakh said. They tossed around ideas, including a podcast about 52 films Zahedi had never made, settling on something broader in scope but bite-size in form, not unlike voice memos from a friend.

“The brevity of these stories felt to me like an experiment in how something like this could fit into people’s lives,” said Neyfakh, who typically works on longer-form projects. (He hosts the podcast “Fiasco,” is a creator and former host of “Slow Burn” at Slate and the founder of Prologue Projects.) Zahedi records in the bedroom of the apartment where Neyfakh and his wife live. This short-form podcast is unusual in a field increasingly crowded with big-budget productions. John Sullivan, a professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, said podcasts are becoming more professionalised as tech companies finance more projects. He attributes this at least in part to the success of “Serial,” which provided a narrative template for a potentially mass-market medium.

“What [Zahedi] is doing is really like ‘audio blogging’ which was one alternative name for the medium in the early 2000s,” Sullivan said. “This is more what the earliest days of what we now know as podcasting looked like.”

Each episode is nonetheless tightly crafted, down to the music that plays at the beginning. On recent episodes, Zahedi’s longtime friend, the composer Evan Ziporyn, has begun composing a short, distinct piece of opening music for each episode. “I know his sensibility, so I thought it would have to be somewhere between Philip Glass and the Smiths, but on acoustic piano and five seconds long,” Ziporyn said. “It’s kind of like writing the first line of a haiku, but you don’t have to finish the haiku.” He’s planning to combine all 365 pieces into one longer piece, in another experiment in form.

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, who working on an ambitious podcast, “365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die,” edits his podcast at his home on New York on May 26, 2021. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, who working on an ambitious podcast, “365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die,” edits his podcast at his home on New York on May 26, 2021. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The unscripted narratives are recorded in batches, often 15 to 20 in a single sitting. Zahedi arrives with a list of subjects he wants to share. On May 30, he talked about a friend who walked for miles to meet him in a cabin in the woods. He told a story about the writer Paul Auster, who once hated a translation Zahedi had done of “The Last Man” by Maurice Blanchot, and then translated it himself. He described a film he once tried to make about the artist Joseph Cornell, that never came to fruition. (Financing projects is a perpetual problem for Zahedi, who is turning to crowdfunding in the hope of a third season of “The Show About The Show.”)

A regular listener, William Pree, says he often tunes in as soon as the notification arrives announcing a new episode. “I’ve always got three minutes,” he said.

After recording more than 320 stories, Zahedi said it’s getting harder to come up with new ones. Putting them out in the world has changed the way he tells them. “I’m more aware of people being upset with me than when I started,” he said. “So maybe that makes me more self-censoring, more cautious, more gentle. I also think I’ve been avoiding some of these stories because they’re darker.”

Some certainly are: In one, Zahedi recalls missing an appointment to visit James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, in a mental hospital in England; he later learns that she hasn’t had a visitor in years.

Listening to too many of these stories back-to-to back can be almost unbearable. But there is a reward in hearing the elliptical return of characters and themes, building over months of material. It is almost bizarrely intimate to have Zahedi speaking singular stories into your ear, day in and day out.

Zahedi’s best episodes are simply life’s strange moments, shaped by his adept retellings. He speaks of being on the playground at the age of 5, when someone told him it was raining worms.

“I was old enough to know that it doesn’t rain worms, but I was young enough not to be totally sure,” he said. “So I put out my hand, thinking no worm is going to fall into it, and a worm fell into it.”

© 2021 New York Times News Service