Television Academy article: Truth Be Told
Television Academy article: Truth Be Told
American Arab film review from The Islamic Monthly. From the article:
A lot of what Alshaibi said in the film resonated with me as an Arab-American. He spoke about watching movies as a child that grossly misrepresented Arabs as mindless and sex-starved, and seeing violent Arabs come at Michael J. Fox’s character in the film Back to the Future. Many times, I was fed the same narratives as a student. In my Advanced Placement World History class, we were shown the film Not Without My Daughter, which was full of bigoted depictions of Muslims and Iranians in post-revolution Iran. It was cringe-worthy to sit through and to this day, the movie continues to remind me of how others may perceive me as an American Muslim: a threat.
In Usama Alshaibi’s autobiographical documentary, the director recalls watching the popular comedy/adventure “Back to The Future” (1985) in a movie theater in Iowa City. He recounts how the appearance, out of nowhere, of a gang of “Libyans” determined to kill Doc, the movie’s loveable mentor, forced him to confront his own divided and complicated identity. The event abruptly dislocated Alshaibi from his role as an American teenager (something he longed to be) into the Other – the caricatured, malevolent, and despised Arab.
Watching “Back to the Future” in movie theaters in Pittsburgh and Houston, this reviewer and her brother experienced similar reactions, coming to regard such moments as flash points for those both American and Arab, in whatever ways individuals choose to define themselves. As Alshaibi demonstrates in this personal film, these flash points have become more numerous, troubling, and dangerous for American Arabs/Arab Americans in the 14 years since 9/11.
“American Arab does not attempt to provide a definitive statement about the Arab experience in America. That might make a fine documentary some day — and Alshaibi would be excellent at making it — but here he is more of the inquisitive artist, seeking some kind of answer to questions that seem to keep shifting with each major life event, from the death of his brother to a brutal hate crime assault in 2011 to the birth of his beautiful daughter, Muneera.”-By Mike Everlet
American Arab is playing Sunday, April 6 at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and I’m in town promoting the film and getting ready for our big premiere. The film has been featured in the Chicago Reader, The Chicago Sun Time and the Chicago Tribune. Here are some links and quotes.
“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.”
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. Chicago Reader, April, 2014.
Published November 25, 2013 in The National, Abu-Dhabi, By David D’Arcy
American Arab is full of troubling images. None more so than close-ups of Usama Alshaibi with bloody bruises on his face. Alshaibi had stumbled into a house in Fairfield, Iowa, the mid-western town where he lived in 2010, thinking that he’d been invited to a party inside. For some young men there, it wasn’t so much that he was an intruder, but that the man named Usama was an Arab. The attackers were never prosecuted. It would have been Alshaibi’s word against theirs.
Alshaibi’s new film made its world premiere on Friday at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which runs until December 1. The director, now 44, narrates the story of his family’s rough landing in America from Iraq. Usama’s mother is Palestinian, his father Iraqi. He and his siblings, one of whom was born in the US, grew up speaking English.
The independent film, budgeted at US$200,000 (Dh734,000), is anything but an anti-American screed. Alshaibi and his US-born younger brother loved breakdancing and baseball. He and his sisters, born in Baghdad, chose to become US citizens and they all live there. But ignorance about the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks and a general resentment towards Islam made it a challenge to be an Arab there, said Alshaibi, whose younger brother died of a drug overdose. “He never found his way,” the director said.
“Especially when you come from war, the thinking is that you bring your children here to be safe, because they’re not in war any more. It’s not something that you expect, that your child will get into drugs and trouble. It’s part of what can happen in a country where you can do everything that you want,” he noted.
In the documentary, three girls whose family recently fled Iraq tell of being stigmatised whenever Osama bin Laden is mentioned, although they barely know who he was. A punk rocker from the band Al-Thawra, Marwan Kamel, ignores prejudice, yet his tearful Polish mother (his father is Syrian) talks of her fears when the phone rang with threats to her family. A Palestinian woman, Amal Abusumayah, recalls an angry American trying to remove her hijab at a supermarket. She took the case to court as a hate crime, and won.
For Alshaibi, the name Usama was an instant epithet after 9/11. “On September 12, I received an anonymous email that said: ‘The only good Arab is a dead Arab.’ You look out the window when you get something like that. You have an anxiety about yourself and what’s going to happen to you and your family.”
Taking another name was out of the question. “Asian people would do it and Persian people would do it. Even in Chicago, at a place where I went for coffee in the morning, the guy who ran it was an Arab and he wouldn’t even call me Usama. He called me ‘Sam’. Here was an Arab self-censoring.”
“There’s been a lot of pressure to change my name after 9/11, but I hold on to it. I refuse to surrender it,” he said. “Life could be easier.”
Life indeed could be easier, Alshaibi learnt on a trip home to Iraq after the outbreak of the second Gulf War. He documented that journey in the film Nice Bombs (2006). Relatives in Baghdad welcomed him warmly, speaking English for the camera to the young man and his American wife. Early in the US occupation, their feelings were already turning against US soldiers, whose common view of the Iraqis in the film was that “we brought them freedom, but they don’t understand it”. The young couple returned to the US – confused, but eager to escape the constant gunfire.
“I couldn’t have made American Arab without making Nice Bombs first,” Alshaibi noted.
Nice Bombs brought him to the attention of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago producers of the now-classic documentary, Hoop Dreams (1994), which followed two African-American teenagers for five years in their pursuit of basketball stardom. Both young men fell far short of those dreams, but the film became a huge success.
Besides American Arab, Kartenquin also produced The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which willl be screened at IDFA in Amsterdam. This is a documentary set in the racially tense 1960s about the boxer’s conversion to Islam and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. At the time, the name Muhammad stigmatised the heavyweight champion.
The rather disturbing American Arab points to a happier sequel, with Usama Alshaibi and his wife naming their newborn daughter Muneera, which means bright or shining, towards the film’s end.
BY ANTHONY KAUFMAN
From documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films comes the news that Usama Alshaibi’s new documentary “American Arab” is nearing completion, readying for festival screenings in late 2013 and 2014, which could mean a Toronto premiere or a fall regional fest appearance. I got to know Alshaibi’s work when I profiled him for the Creative Capital Foundation a few years back. His 2006 doc “Nice Bombs” offered a refreshing new perspective on Iraq War, allowing Westerners to sympathize with an Arab perspective in a much deeper way. “American Arab” promises to do the same.
In March 2011, Alshaibi was beaten, he alleged, in a hate-crime attack.
According to Kartemquin’s website, the new film will be another personal doc in which Alshaibi “will share his own story and introduce us to others, sparking a frank conversation about the identity of, and perceptions about, Arab-Americans. Seamlessly weaving historical footage, animation, as well as real-life scenes of people living as Arabs in the U.S., the film will put a human face on the vague complexities of racism in post-9/11 America.”
When I interviewed Alshaibi, who grew up in Iowa City, he offered a lighthearted take on the complex identity politics he faces on a daily basis.
“For years, I felt like an outsider,” he told me. “I didn’t know who I was. Not until Osama Bin Laden became so popular did everyone know my name.”
While Alshaibi frequently taps into the dark moments of his past—from the anxiety of living under Saddam Hussein to the fear of being deported back to Iraq—a number of his videos reflect a sense of humor about his living culture clash. His celebrated 1999 short, Dance Habibi Dance, for example, is a music-video-style Arabesque disco party that examines “how American pop culture is digested and interpreted in places like Africa, the Middle East, and Asia,” and vice versa: “seeing how Middle Eastern culture is interpreted on this side, and the humor in that.”
The bulk of Alshaibi’s work, though, provokes and confronts, from subversively pornographic shorts like Ass (2001),The Foreigner (2001), and The Amateurs (2003), to the disturbingly political Bombshell (2004), a video collage of Iraqi underground torture videos and Saddam Hussein birthday celebrations. His unsettling 2003 feature debut,Muhammed and Jane, is a haunting black-and-white love story about a fearful Iraqi-Polish man who returns to the U.S. and forges a relationship with a young woman suffering from a similar sense of paranoia.
In 2006, he told, “For so long, everything terrified me: I thought I’d be kidnapped by the Baathists and sent to war, or be assassinated, or deported, or locked up here. But I know how the law works. And I’m not afraid anymore.”