Alshaibi also speaks of a “total demonization of the Iraqis.” As Kyle’s platoon is invited by an Iraqi Eid feasts after they stormed his house, the hosts turned out to be deceitful and evil, he has in the next room a weapons cache hidden under a steel plate. ““Even the great Iraqi and Arab tradition of hospitality is degraded,” says Alshaibi.
I’m really happy to be on this list. I know many of these fine talented folks and honored to be included with you all. I’m number 21!
From Film 50, 2014: Chicago’s Screen Gems:
Usama Alshaibi is studying for his MFA in the “mellow college town” of Boulder, Colorado, along with the likes of filmmakers Phil Solomon and Alex Cox, but the director of “Nice Bombs” and “Muhammad and Jane” is still in the midst of promoting his fine, fierce long-in-the-making family history “American Arab.” “Oh man,” he says when asked about any lessons from its ongoing release. “Identity is fluid and Arabs are still having a tough time in America. But, I also learned that I am comfortable in my own skin. I don’t need to apologize or answer to anyone.” While Alshaibi’s experimental shorts and features can readily be described as transgressive, his current work, co-produced with Kartemquin, earns that label in its own right. “Every time the United States bombs Iraq, it triggers these impulses in me. Of course these triggers have always been there, and much of my early work came from that primal place. There has to be some desire, some rage, some passion that makes me want to pick up the camera and start creating something. I never saw there being a line between my more experimental, transgressive work and the documentaries. A real Muslim Imam in Iowa and his story, in contrast to a fictional Muslim sex worker in Chicago—both of these narratives are interesting to me. In one, I may take a more straightforward approach and, on the other side, I can let go and dive into a psychedelic realm. I can explore moods and tones, something more poetic. I’m comfortable with being called a transgressive filmmaker. It’s who I am. I’ll wear that badge with honor.” Alshaibi’s current projects include “Baghdad, Iowa,” “my nightmare-love project. A fictional home. A place that cannot be found but is. It’s based in real events but dipped in LSD and death.” And Usama and his filmmaker wife Kristie are working on a doc called “American Dominatrix.” Still, despite the identity issues his work is steeped in, Chicago is key. “I would not be who I am today without Chicago. I’ve made life-long friendships in Chicago. From my days at Columbia College to the Chicago History Museum and Chicago Public Radio and my cinema family at Kartemquin Films. And of course the community around the Chicago Underground Film Festival. We all have our tough days in Chitown, but it is the city where I met my wife and really figured out how to live and make it. Chicago lives in my blood.” – See more at:http://newcityfilm.com/2014/10/02/film-50-2014-chicagos-screen-gems/3/
The Film Yap: “American Arab” is obviously a very personal film; can you tell us how you got started on this project and what your vision for it was at that time?
Alshaibi: I was noticing that there was this rising hate and hostility toward Arabs and Muslims in the United States and it was typically based on racists ideas– so I wanted to make a film that exposed these racist sentiments and also exposed who Arab Americans really are. The United States of America is home to almost 4 million Arab-Americans that are very much part of the fabric of this country. But the media and the movies in the United States depict us like crazed, inhuman terrorists. Those depictions make it easier for Americans to dehumanize us and bomb our homelands. I’m saying Arabs are not only part of the United States but we are part of the formation of America. Can you imagine the United States without Casey Kassim, Ralph Nader, Danny Thomas or even Steve Jobs? All of them are Arab Americans. So I wanted to talk about that, but also tell the human story of who we are. Like Amal Abusumayah in my film. She was born in Chicago and raised by Palestinian parents. She has the right to live freely and wear her hijab if she wants to. That is her right as an American. So when a bigot tries to pull off her head scarf and tell her to go back to where she came from, that is the dark spot of America I’m discussing. Every Arab in the United States has experienced this type of harassment and racism in the United States and we are sick of it.
One of the challenges for a documentary filmmaker is adapting to the story as it evolves and goes in unexpected directions. What would you say was the most surprising development over the course of this project?
Alshaibi: When I started the project, I was mainly focused on other people and wanted my own personal story to be more of a secondary narrative. But life moves on even if you are working on a documentary. I moved away from Chicago and had a baby girl with my wife in Iowa; these elements became part of the narrative of the film. My story became part of the bigger story. And I’m OK with that. In a way, it was easier for me to show more of my life and be very open about it.
What is your favorite memory from working on “American Arab?”
Alshaibi: My favorite memory is part of my life and the film: That would be the birth of my daughter, Muneera.
You’ve described this film as a “Coming of Arab story” and, as it shows, much of the Arab American experience is influenced by events in the Middle East. With the increasing violence in the region given the Syrian Civil War and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, what are your thoughts on how this will influence the “Coming of Arab story” of the next generation of Arab Americans depicted in your film, such as the young Jassar girls or your own daughter?
Alshaibi: Well, the younger generation needs to know what we went through as Arabs in America. They need to understand that after the attacks on the Twin Towers, that Arabs and Muslims were targeted, questioned, put in jails and abused. Hate crimes went up, and the media and the general American population was indifferent to it. So they need to see this and realize that the United States is their country and to speak out and be vocal about injustice. I want the younger generation to realize that they have a right to be angry. They have a right to speak up and speak out for their human rights and dignity.
Alshaibi (far left) in American Arab
Last night the 21st Chicago Underground Film Festival closed with Usama Alshaibi’s American Arab, a documentary profile of various Arab immigrants and the American-born children of Arab parents. It’s the former Chicagoan’s second personal documentary (after Nice Bombs, from 2006), as well as the least confrontational work this longtime provocateur has made. (For more on his development, check out the conversation we posted last week between Alshaibi and local filmmaker Carlos Jiménez Flores.) Where his other movies have played in underground film festivals, Alshaibi hopes for American Arab to screen in community centers and high school classrooms. I spoke with Alshaibi last week to learn how changes in venue and the makeup of his audience shape how he regards his movies. Our conversation soon turned to spectatorship in general, as we discussed, on the one hand, how movie audiences can provide independent filmmakers with a sense of community and, on the other, how audiences assimilate images in mainstream entertainment.
Ben Sachs: How many pieces have you presented at CUFF at this point?
Usama Alshaibi: My first thing at CUFF was a music video I showed in the late 90s. The following year, I made a short film called Dance Habibi Dance. That was sort of my breakout—I made it immediately after I finished at Columbia College. I’ve premiered all my other features and a lot of my shorts there. It became a home for me, a place where I knew people would be receptive to what I was doing. The screenings are awesome, the parties are fabulous. So it’s a place I want to keep coming back to. [It’s] close to my sensibilities.
That makes sense. Your narrative movies often deal with subcultural communities.
When I decided to get into film, I was inspired by the cinema of transgression. I liked the stuff that Richard Kern was doing in New York, also Nick Zedd and Lydia Lunch. I would reach for these underground films . . . but at Columbia, there was a push to make more conventional types of films. I remember visiting film crews and being turned off and overwhelmed by the amount of people. It seemed like too much for me. I liked just having a camera and a couple actors, having the crew act in the movie. That’s just who I am, and the festival reflects that.
You made American Arab with Kartemquin Films. This has got to be the most mainstream thing you’ve done, no?
It is. It’s a big leap from my last feature film, Profane. Have you seen that?
I reviewed that when it played at CUFF a few years ago.
That’s right. You called it a bargain-basement version of Enter the Void, which I really appreciated. That was a high compliment to me.
I was afraid you’d take it as an insult.
No, no! Enter the Void cost so much money, but you thought we were able to get at the same stuff for very little! I funded the whole thing, I shot it, I did everything. Later it won the best feature prize at the Boston Underground Film Festival—which just rejected American Arab, incidentally. So you’re right—it is a more mainstream film.
As for Kartemquin, I’ve always admired them. One of the first movies I saw when I came to Chicago was Hoop Dreams, and I was blown away by it. I remember bumping into [Kartemquin cofounder] Gordon Quinn in the South Loop when he was shooting The New Americans. I just went up to him and said, “Hey, I want to talk to you.” That was pretty much my only interaction with him before making American Arab. [laughs]
I knew that I was working with Kartemquin and that they have a particular philosophy about filmmaking. They have a clear idea of social practice, connection to the community, and how films can help people. These are very noble goals, so it was an honor to attach myself to an organization like that. Now, you said this was a mainstream film . . .
In that you made it with a more professional production outfit than you usually work with.
That’s definitely true. I think that professional filmmakers have to cast a wide net with certain films. I can make art films and know that there’s a specific audience for it. But this movie is something I want everybody and their neighbor to see. The message is large, and it’s clear. So I think that was the important thing with this, being able to communicate clearly. Because I do think it’s getting at something important.
It’s giving voice to people who have been marginalized—and when they are presented in mainstream American media, it’s rarely from their perspective. Also since 9/11, bigotry towards Arabs has increased noticeably in this country. Certainly that’s influenced depictions of Arabs in the media—regardless of whether the depiction is positive or negative, it’s still responding to the zeitgeist.
I agree that things changed after 9/11 and that fear and paranoia regarding Arabs got pumped up. But, as I argue in the film, that had existed before, just in a different form. When I was a kid, it was typical orientalist stuff—that we have flying carpets and camels and all this stuff.
You have that montage in American Arab of stereotypical Arabs in Hollywood movies, mainly from the 70s and 80s.
The big one was Back to the Future, because that’s a great, iconic film. I was a teenager in the 80s, and I saw it in a theater. I liked the film, but . . . every time I’d watch films with friends and these scenes came up with crazy, hysterical, terrorist Arabs, I’d cringe in my seat. I’d try to block them out of the films in my head, but they were always there.
These things affect people. As much as we might want to deny it, when conventional, Hollywood movies keep giving us these images of bad-guy Arabs, they get normalized. So when a crime is committed by an Arab [in real life], all those images come back to people, because they’ve seen nothing else. They don’t think of Steve Jobs when they hear about an Arab-American—they think of the wild, bearded guy with a turban and a gun.
One of the things I’m doing [in American Arab] is pointing out this way of thinking about minorities in America. Every minority group or ethnic group has been subject to it, and I want to point out that it’s happening again. We need to call it out when we see it.
At the same time, the movie doesn’t feel confrontational. It feels like the start of a conversation, rather than a provocation. I was a little surprised by that, actually, having seen some of your other movies.
If someone in the audience is on the fence about Arab-Americans and my movie pisses him off, then I don’t think the movie is successful. And yeah, I’ve made a lot of provocative shorts and things that are a little more aggressive, but I’m not really interested in that anymore. There are discussions that take place within the Arab community, and then there’s a greater conversation [in American society]. I’m trying to bring these two together—you know, going in the Kartemquin spirit of [starting] dialogue.
Do you say you’re not interested in provoking an audience with regards to this movie or that you’re done with that indefinitely?
Well, I don’t necessarily try to make transgressive cinema—it’s just in my blood. [laughs] I have certain obsessions and dreams and nightmares that I keep returning to. But with this film, there’s a little more of a social message. There’s also a diary element and humor and documentary elements . . . I look at it as a way to introduce people whom I admire [to audiences].
A lot of the people in American Arab remind me of my family or my friends or even myself. And I think about young people growing up [in America] now who are refugees from Iraq, Syria, or other Middle Eastern countries . . . I’m hoping they can catch this film and not feel so alone. That’s why I want to make it as “rated G” as possible—well, maybe not G-rated, because there’s a lot of swearing. But I was thinking of this as something that could be shown in high schools and community centers. I want other young [Arab-Americans] out there to see it and know that they’re OK. There’s a lot of hate being thrown at them because of who they are or where they come from, and I’m saying, “Don’t worry about it. You can be yourself in America. That isAmerica.”
Do you see yourself making more movies that could be shown in community centers?
Probably not. I’m interested in these themes, but I pretty much make the kinds of films that I like. And a film like Profane, I’m not going to bother showing that to a certain community—it’s not going to be helpful to them. But that movie was something I really wanted to do. And so, it’s played at sex workers’ film festivals [festivals of films by and about sex workers] and underground film festivals.
This documentary was unique for me in that it was a collaboration with Kartemquin. If I make another movie with them, it will probably resemble this. But for now, I’m happy with it. It’s the big statement.
By Ben Sachs (Monday, April 7, 2014)
“What it means to be American needs to be reexamined.”
Two film festivals, two indie filmmakers, one discussion on filmmaking ethics.
Usama Alshaibi and Carlos Jiménez Flores have different filmmaking styles, but they take a similar stance on mainstream depictions of race and ethnicity in popular media.
It’s officially film festival season in Chicago. As the Gene Siskel Film Center’s long-running European Union Film Festival wraps up, two similarly enduring fests, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Film Festival, are shifting into gear this week. Though they offer wildly different programming—CLFF favors narrative features, CUFF prides itself on experimental fare—both festivals make it a priority to promote small, independent voices. Closing this year’s CUFF is American Arab, a documentary directed by former Chicagoan and Columbia College alum Usama Alshaibi and produced by Chicago’s venerable Kartemquin Films. Incorporating his own experiences as an Iraqi-American with those of Arabs across the country, Alshaibi explores the post-9/11 struggles and contradictions of Arab identities.
For this interview, Alshaibi talked with Carlos Jiménez Flores, a local Puerto Rican filmmaker whose deeply personal feature My Princess, a black-and-white drama shot and produced here, is featured in CLFF’s “Made in Chicago” segment. Like Alshaibi, Flores takes stock of race and ethnic issues, particularly those pertaining to his own community. The two filmmakers didn’t know one another prior to their conversation, but they quickly found common ground in their positions on the ethics of filmmaking and the narrow portrayals of race in media, and their deep connections to their respective backgrounds. —Drew Hunt
USAMA ALSHAIBI: So Carlos, did you study film in Chicago?
CARLOS JIMÉNEZ FLORES: My degree is in human resource development and sociology. I didn’t want to study film. Basically, I’m a storyteller, so I thought human resource development and sociology would give me the depth to tell a better story. I started out as a producer, and always figured I could hire the people who went to film school. Eventually I transitioned to writing and directing.
UA: When I went to Columbia—this was in the mid- to late 90s—there was a real push from the school to work on Hollywood-style film sets. Some of my peers were moving to LA and working on union shoots. I had been to a couple of really massive shoots where there’s a crew of 40 people, but it really turned me off. I just didn’t want to make those kinds of films. When I left Columbia I started to make really small films—just me and a camera and another person. That kind of filmmaking is what I really loved.
CJF: I find it fascinating that you were turned off by being on set with 40 people. That’s how I started, but when I began to shoot my own films I had six to ten people. I’ve been on big-budget sets with big crews, and it’s a little overwhelming.
UA: I totally agree. Even as I started making bigger films, I’ve always kept my crews small.
CJF: The bigger the crew, the less spontaneity you have. With a smaller crew I can say, “Hey, I just thought of something—let’s move this and go somewhere else and shoot a different scene.”
“I started to question whether America was a melting pot. To me it seemed more like a salad, where nothing is blending.”
—Carlos Jiménez Flores to fellow filmmaker Usama Alshaibi
UA: I think what happens in filmmaking is a young person will go on a set, and whatever set they walk onto, that tone becomes what filmmaking is to them. But there are so many different ways of making cinema. When I was starting out everything was celluloid. But I was actually embracing video pretty early on. I really admired the Dogme 95 movement and seeing what was possible with digital video. For one of my early features, Muhammad and Jane, I shot the whole thing on digital video. It was kind of a love story, but it also had to do with the politics of the time around 9/11 and how Arabs were treated and how foreigners were treated. And like your film, My Princessa, I actually shot it in black-and-white because I was interested in contrast. But I remember folks saying, “What kind of film stock did you use?” I’d go, “It’s on video,” and they’d just kind of walk away—which is silly now because so much is shot on video. I think the idea is not to get so consumed with [format] but to remember that the tools we use—film or video or whatever—help tell a story. It doesn’t really matter what you shoot it on.
CJF: Someone can tell an incredible story using an iPhone. I want to ask you some questions about American Arab. I’m Puerto Rican, and Puerto Ricans in the United States are grouped into all these other countries that also speak Spanish. So we’re labeled either Latino or Hispanic. There are debates whether these terms are acceptable or not. So my question is about the word “Arab”—I’m not sure if it’s the proper label over something like “Middle Eastern.”
UA: It’s an acceptable word, but it’s also used to demean. I mean, you can call someone a Jew and say it in a way that’s derogatory. Most Arabs in America would call themselves Arab-Americans, but my film’s title, American Arab, signifies identity. It’s also about process and transition and realizing that the question of identity is very interesting. When I was interviewing Arab- Americans, some of the younger people didn’t identify themselves as white, but some of their parents identified as white. Immigrants who came here in the 50s, 60s, and even the 70s were “white”—unless they were black. If you came from a Middle Eastern country, you were white. Now there’s more of a sense of a brown identity, and people want to be more specific about what they are. I think within ethnicities there are certain complexities, but from a white American perspective people are lumped in these gigantic categories. I’m sure you get lumped. I get lumped constantly. And then we’re cross-lumped. Mexicans or Puerto Ricans are often mistaken for Arabs, and all the hatred and vilification that comes with [the mistaken identity] is attributed to [the target], regardless if they’re from Baghdad or Mexico City. That’s another thing I talk about in the film.
CJF: These themes creep into my work, too, though not directly in [My Princess]. It’s weird because the media in Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, as well, have bought into the views of the United States. They tend to keep lighter-skinned individuals in front of the camera, and I don’t care for that. The reality is we’re all different shades, so in My Princess and in my movies in general, I cast according to talent, not according to looks. I aimed to illustrate all the beautiful skin colors in My Princess, even though it is in black-and-white. I’ve always wanted to make a black-and-white [film] because it’s romantic, a character within itself, but you see the beauty in all the shades.
UA: That’s, in itself, is a type of political statement. And what you say about light skin—it’s not just Puerto Rico. All those skin-lightening products—it’s a huge multimillion-dollar business.
CJF: All of this just reiterates that struggles over identity are universal. The theme of your film connects with me. We need this type of discourse because it will help break down the barriers that have been built over generations.
UA: Absolutely. I think the United States is starting to see the melting pot happen right now. As the landscape of America is changing, this type of conversation becomes more important and relevant. People need to be able to feel like they’re complicated. It’s not like there needs to be any tension between you being an American and you being a Puerto Rican. In another way, you can also say, “I abandon both of these cultures,” and sort of find your own. One of the people I talk to in the film—his name is Marwan Kamel, his mom’s from Poland and his dad’s from Syria, and he said something very beautiful and simple: “Allow people the ability to be complex, give them that space to be complex.” It’s important to allow these stories to be heard, and I think certain filmmakers who have been marginalized in the past also need to be heard. I think what I get from your film is it’s not a simple story, there are a lot of layers and it keeps changing, it’s not fixed.
CJF: I was born in Chicago, but when I was a toddler my family moved back to Puerto Rico. I had no idea I was from Chicago, and didn’t speak any English until I was eight years old. Coming back here, I got an idea of the melting pot idea, [but] I didn’t see it as a melting pot; I was experiencing a lot of prejudice and racism. My father, who was dark-skinned, also dealt with a lot of racism. I saw how he was treated and suffered. When my parents divorced, he went back to Puerto Rico and never came back to the United States. So I started to question whether America was a melting pot. To me it seemed more like a salad, where nothing is blending; it’s just all these ingredients bouncing around this bowl. I agree with you that things are becoming more of a melting pot. I find it amusing that there are people whose families have been here for four, five, six generations—they don’t get that they came from somewhere else. I see how they treat people who just got here like crap, and I wonder what their grandparents or great-grandparents would think.
UA: And it’s not that long ago. For a lot of people, it’s their grandmother or great-grandmother who came here. You and I are the same age. I also was a kid in America in the late 70s, and you’re right, it was tough. Just having black hair was radical. And my father did the same thing as yours: He never quite felt settled here and went back to the Middle East. My mom stayed here, but my father has never really come back. Our stories are common.
CJF: I think films like yours are starting to tackle these problems. We need to break down those walls and start making films that are more inclusive. We need to make films where the bad guys aren’t the same kinds of people each and every time. The media has a huge influence on how people develop these ideas. Most of the things you see onscreen are not real, yet we see it day in and day out, and it becomes the truth. It’s hard to make it in filmmaking, but once you do it’s time to start breaking down the doors—or jump in through the window or come in through the back door. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers to say, “Here’s a different take.” Hopefully we get enough people to come on board and maybe things will start to balance out.
UA: You’re absolutely right. It’s our responsibility to change the visual landscape. The people who are making these Hollywood films have a cartoonish conception of what a Puerto Rican is and what an Arab is. They put the simplest two-dimensional character on the screen, another movie copies it, and they become cookie cutters. We have to beat that down and mock it for what it is. Like, can you imagine if someone did blackface now? They would be laughed at. But at one point that was an acceptable form of entertainment. Hollywood uses brown-face now—Mexicans and Latin Americans are consistently used to play Arabs in Hollywood. Our responsibility is to get in there, talk about this stuff, and change what beauty is—and change what a leading character can be. What it means to be American needs to be reexamined.