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.”