Interview in Westword about coronavirus and new film

Like everyone else, Colorado filmmaker Usama Alshaibi’s life has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As a teacher at Colorado State University, he found himself putting his classes online. And as a filmmaker whose work straddles transgressive cinema and documentary, often exploring Arab-American identity and his own experiences as an Iraqi refugee turned United States citizen, Alshaibi made a short, meditative landscape video about the strange historical moment we’re living through. It lasts just shy of a minute.

We caught up with Alshaibi to find out how he’s navigating the pandemic, to learn how it has affected his creative practice, and to discover more about his short film “Here.”

Westword: How are you handling the COVID-19 shutdowns?

Usama Alshaibi: I’m doing okay. I teach at Colorado State University, and we just migrated all our classes online. I’m also making sure the students are dealing with all this okay. I check in on their mental health. This is scary stuff.

My daughter, who is in second grade, is home, and so we are staying semi-active and making art and trying to stay creative. My partner keeps asking me to do yoga with her…I’m getting there. Things feel strange but also normal. I lived as a child during war, and so I feel weirdly prepared.

How does this affect your work?

It’s difficult to focus on older projects, and I tend to respond quickly to the current world around me. So I started recording audio daily about the pandemic for a potential podcast and started thinking of ways of expressing what I’m going through and what the people around me are going through. I wanted to make something immediately and not overthink it or overdo it. So I made this short video called “Here.”

Talk about “Here.” What is it about? What prompted it?

The video happened very quickly. I edited it in about a day. The footage came from a short film I shot years ago that was about a difficult period in my life, and I was spending a lot of time by myself and in my car — but that film never happened. It was too depressing.

But the footage had this isolated feeling to it that was pulling me back in. There is also this large mound in north Boulder that I often return to, and it shows up in many of my recent films. The mound has become this magical place that I project onto. So that mound comes in at the end of the film — but it is blue and the colors are off and you hear my voice whispering. The audio I recorded as I edited the video. It is a kind of evidence of what is happening.

The motion of the car with the rain and the birds chirping is at once calming but also slightly off. The birds are actually chirping backwards and the audio is not connected to what we are seeing. What is about? It is about feeling a contradiction of feelings. It is about this tension in the air and the danger all around, but not seeing it yet. It is the horror underneath everything. It is about making our mark and saying we are still here but freaked out a bit.

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