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CINE-FILE review of American Arab for BEST OF CUFF

Usama Alshaibi’s AMERICAN ARAB (US/Documentary)

About halfway through AMERICAN ARAB, Marwan Kamel, a local Chicago musician of Syrian and Polish descent, sums up the knotty problem of carving out an identity in a country not fond of ambiguity, and offers this solution: “Give people the space to be complicated.” It’s something of a thesis for director Usama Alshaibi’s complex and extremely personal documentary. The core of the movie traces Alshaibi’s life through family photos and home movies as he bounces from Iraq to Iowa to Chicago, occasionally doubling back. In AMERICAN ARAB he examines how this sense of impermanence, coupled with ongoing issues of Islamophobia in pre- and post-9/11 America, can wreak havoc on one’s sense of self. Alshaibi wonders, “Why are Americans so clueless about Arabs?” before unleashing a cavalcade of archival idiocies from the campaign trail, cable news, and mindless Hollywood fare—thanks to Robert Zemeckis you can’t yell “Libyans!” in a crowded room without a bunch of thirty-somethings hitting the deck. Later, he (or some other brave soul) tests the water at a 2002 “flag rally” to predictable results, although one rarely gets measured commentary from someone literally waving a flag. All this amounts to a nasty reminder that Islamophobia is an especially insidious strain of bigotry; it often masquerades as patriotism or harmless yucks, but takes a toll on those attempting to straddle a precarious national divide. The latter part of AMERICAN ARAB delves into more personal territory: Alshaibi experiences firsthand matters only previously discussed, and we meet his wife Kristie as they start a family—the couple bonded over a love of experimental film, WINDOW WATER BABY MOVING enthusiasts take heart. With Alshaibi at its center, AMERICAN ARAB never becomes overly didactic and ultimately succeeds because the filmmaker himself is eminently likable and self-aware. While struggling to find a place where he belongs he openly acknowledges, “We tend to romanticize the places we aren’t at.” By allowing himself and his subjects space to be complicated, Alshaibi manages to thoughtfully examine this hard to define American identity. (2013, 60 min) JS