In Search of an Invisible City: interview in White Fungus

“When I was born there were dead bodies hanging off nooses in the streets of downtown Baghdad.”

“I feel it necessary to say here…that the two basic sentiments of my childhood which stayed with me well into adolescence, are those of a profound eroticism, at first sublimated in a great religious faith, and a permanent consciousness of death.” – Luis Buñuel

So begins the “Forced Artist Statement” of underground filmmaker Usama Alshaibi, whose brilliant new work Baghdad, Iowa depicts a dreamlike search for a liminal, mythical homeland amidst an autobiographical tangle of grief and lust and the director’s divergent roots in the Midwest and the Mideast. Usama has made around 75 films to date, ranging from wild erotic shorts to experimental narratives to the documentaries for which he is perhaps most widely renowned. His work tends to be predicated on the concept of the “other”, the immigrant, the outsider, and how this position relates to fetishization or violence- often utilizing his lived experience as an Arab American; and a singular style bursting with lysergic irreverence as well as a deeply genuine, intimate, vérité.

Alshaibi appears onscreen in many of his films. He also appears in two very different books: In 2003, Baghdad born Usama Alshaibi is interviewed in Pulitzer Prize winning author Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last, a strident oral history of contemporary American perseverance. Here he speaks lucidly about his childhood between Iraq and Iowa, his loving relationship with his all-American wife Kristie, the struggles facing Arab-Americans after 9/11, and his own path to becoming a US citizen. Conversely, Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground, Jack Sargeant’s landmark paean to the Cinema of Transgression, paints a very different portrait as it details the content of Usama’s short films (often produced with his wife Kristie), “characterized by a combination of dark humor and a gleeful celebration of what is deemed by mainstream culture to be ‘deviant’ behavior, this includes rectal masturbation, bloody violence, male prostitution and fake porno film auditions.”

The stark contrast of these two mentions depicts an irreducible artist. Usama is fascinated with the paradox that occupies the conceptual space between dualities: Iraqi and American, activist and libertine, repulsion and attraction, Eros and Thanatos- dualities which find vibrant concert in his work. By his own estimation, the 2011 experimental narrative Profane is the most complete in this regard: in the film documentary and narrative footage interweave, as do twin itineraries of sexual transgression and religious transcendence.


(from Profane)

His widely acclaimed 2006 documentary Nice Bombs details Usama’s 2004 return to Baghdad during of the US invasion with his father and wife. The Alshaibi’s literal home videos in Iraq depict a people not at some ideological remove, but in their living rooms; having dinner, conversations, dances, and voicing everyday concerns; intermittently, impersonally (and sometimes finally) interrupted by “nice bombs”. Even in the context of such political extremes and abstract violence, Alshaibi illuminates how through the concept of home an authentic shared subjectivity emerges that withstands the deterritorializing force of the war machine, even if the structural home may not:

His other homeland, its epicenter somewhere around Iowa City, became the focal point of an amorphous multimedia project that would intermittently obsess Usama after his return to the United States. Amid the grief following his younger brother’s untimely passing from a drug overdose, he began to explore their childhood home in America. Glimpses could be found online of the project, christened Baghdad, Iowa, as it began to coalesce into a film.

“The origin, or the seed, of this invisible city was planted shortly after my brother died at the age of 28. He was a writer, a religious man, a husband, a criminal and drug addict. When they were preparing my brother’s tombstone they asked my mother where he was born, and she said he was born in Iraq. Even though he was born in Iowa. Where are we? Perhaps his death birthed this place.

It’s that spell that has lit up the cornfields.”

The nascent film was violently sidelined when Alshaibi was assaulted during a visit to his home state, the impetus for the attack being his ethnic name. The hate crime would serve as a catalyst for his acclaimed tour de force documentary American Arab, autobiographical examination of family, racism, and Arab/Muslim identity in post 9/11 United States:

Usama since resumed his search for Baghdad, Iowa, and his years of work have culminated in a otherworldly poetic narrative, 34 of the most haunting and beautiful minutes he has yet produced. Here, in a conversation from last year during production, the director delivers a report on the expedition, and shares generous insight into his life and work.

N: In your earlier work it was clear you were making do with whatever you could get your hands on. Now it seems like you have a crew and some equipment. Could you talk about your trajectory as it relates to being able to produce films, and where you started?

U: I began making work at a certain time in the mid 90’s. I came up at a time when the Dogme 95 movement was popular, and that was an interesting philosophy. I also come from a tradition of underground filmmaking. I always get annoyed when I meet other filmmakers who just took so long to get one film, or even one shot off the ground because they needed money, crew, or cast. It’s like “look, we have the equipment. What’s the problem?”

Read the rest of the interview at whitefungus.com