Channel 83

Usama Alshaibi interviewed by Albert Hofer for Channel 83: (October 2004)

+ Usama, I have noticed that you frequently use the word ‘nomadic’ in order to define yourself and your work. Allow me to summarize a few crucial points in your biography in order to introduce my first question: you were born in Baghdad and you have been traveling regularly in and out of Iraq and the USA throughout your childhood; eventually you ended up settling in the US where you have now spent over twenty years, finally gaining your citizenship in 2003, only to return to Iraq to shoot a documentary at the beginning of the following year.

All these events suggest that movement is a constant, recurring, element in your biography. Now, to what extent do you think your work represents this nomadic character of yours? How does the feeling of displacement, the continuous motion to which your own life was forcefully exposed to, impact on the way you approach the creative process as a whole?

Yes, travel was a constant in my childhood. I have some fond memories of jumbo jets flying across the Atlantic Ocean, over and over. So themes of travel do resonate in my work; but more so the outcome of travel and its effect on the mind and body. I am interested in the immigration process, but also the placement of the immigrant and the awareness of nationality. These are topics that interest me and they may have something to do with a more transitional form of filmmaking. I certainly am attracted to motion and displacement and have attempted to discuss these in my movies by theme and process. I’m attracted to people who have trouble with their placement in a pre-determined society. There are many elements within that structure that interest me.The bureaucracy of immigration, the process of entry and customs is fascinating.

There is a type of cultural fusion that I also play with, but more so the interaction of elements (aesthetic, musical or characters) from different backgrounds and customs, and how that forms into new ways of seeing the world and myself. Sometimes ‘clashes’ between east and west can be amusing and funny, but it can be frustrating and misconstrued on both ends. I was simultaneously aware of my status as ‘foreigner’ in the USA and abroad in the Middle East. The ‘nomadic’ identity you speak of, then, becomes more of a personality and an approach to living and viewing. I used to have romantic ideas of never settling, just living all over the place. In some ways I attempted that when I was in my twenties and lived in many places around the USA. I saw a lot of America. My Father has that nomadic blood in him and I suspect it’s in all of us immigrants that came to the USA. But my situation is different in that I was brought here as a toddler and assimilated very quickly. My immigration experience was very different than my parents, and I was conscious of that.

I think that the documentary I’m working on, shot in Iraq , is closest to a transient type of filmmaking. With my small 3-chip camera I am allowed a certain freedom of movement and the camera becomes a kind of witness or third eye. Shooting and experiencing fused together in Iraq. Once, when we were in Baghdad, there was a very loud explosion – a bomb near by – I was interviewing my cousin and my wife was in the other room. When it happened my heart jumped in a familiar way. But something was new. I was somehow removed from the experience by the very process of shooting video. I was pleased that I captured the violence that had just happened. Because it was the reality of our situation and the reality of Iraq. Bombs constantly (and consistently) were set off in Baghdad. My wife was horrified and I finally saw in her eyes that she felt the danger and magnitude of our situation. It’s a sad and terrifying look. It’s when you realize that you have no impact on your destiny. Anything can happen to you at any moment. The world is violent and insane. But I did manage to catch it on video.

+ My next two questions originate in two quotes of yours that I have found in your interview with Studs Terkel:

“After the divorce, our family just disintegrated. I had no sense of home or place. I felt vulnerable. I felt I had to be quiet. After I got my green card, however, I started to be more outspoken” (Usama Alshaibi in Studs Terkel’s ‘Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times’, New Press, 2003)

Would you say that you latest documentary constitutes an attempt toward being once again ‘vocal’ about your life, your upbringing, and the story of those who (as for you in the past) are being ‘forgotten’ out of the picture of the current international political panorama?

In a way yes. It is probably more of a discovery than any planned statement. For example, I had this past with Iraq and when returning I was confronted with all these new and complex circumstances. The US occupation was one obvious factor, and along with the on going violence, it created a charged environment to explore all these issues, and my personal history. But for me it was important to return and just see with my own eyes and try to make sense of it all – using my video camera to interview people and have them tell me their life story and any story about life in Iraq. This method is very much copied from oral historian Studs Terkel. His influence is apparent. Maybe, since he encouraged me to make this movie and go on the trip I took his method (or spirit) with me. But I do not take this as anything more than an influence. I would never compare my work to Studs and what I’m doing is significantly different.

+ Another question inspired by the Terkel interview:

“My mission is to give voices to people who have been really afraid to talk. I think there’s a great silence among a lot of Arabs and Arab Americans in this country. There’s a lot of fear in this. I don’t know how many times I hear people on the radio and the TV news talk about the Islamists. It’s given an ominous meaning“ (Usama Alshaibi in Studs Terkel’s ‘Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times’, New Press, 2003)

Do you feel a ‘responsibility’ of sort, both as an artist and as an Iraqi-born American citizen, demanding that you take a position in relation to the current conflict in Iraq by means of your work?

Well recently I was speaking to someone about this label of being political and what that meant exactly. I knew that being engaged in protests, as important as they are, was not my style and certainly I was not conveying my true feelings.Yes there is some level of responsibility. My Father would tell me to be fair. And I try to be. The Iraqi documentary is not trying to answer any questions; it is a discovery and shows many views of the world and the US occupation. I’m not trying to convey a political message. There are many messages, some contradict and others relate in ways that become apparent later. It’s much more than that. The voices I captured in Iraq are important; what I heard and felt is relevant to tell my story of Iraq in 2004. Whatever position I take will be temporary because the story of Iraq is continuous and the fate of Iraq is beyond our control. What I hope my documentary can do is give a closer glimpse inside of an Iraqi family and a boy who once lived there and now a man that returns -pointing a camera at everyone and everything. I truly felt that my process and material were one and the same in Baghdad. I was in a euphoric state while I was there even though I was tense from the war.

Maybe when I made that statement I was feeling especially empowered- I think now I am a bit more sober and less idealistic. But you see, when I do have some sort of ‘position’ it’s not so obvious, I would never want my work to be representative of Arab-American art or anything like that. But I do play with that dichotomy. Sometimes that responsibility you speak off is slightly irresponsible and I may even explore things that frighten me. So on one hand I do make very obvious statements within a political context, but on the other, it is also absurd and not so clear. Do I enjoy chaos? Perhaps. I’m losing touch with any clear political position and more interested in the contrast and clashes that my documentary and my other films explore.

+ In works such as “Muhammad and Jane” or “The Foreigner” you seem to address both very actual social issues (anti-Muslim hatred in America after 09/11, hybridity and Diaspora) and to reflect upon the role of artists and spectators in contemporary art.

While many contemporary artists are adamant about their being ‘detached’ from any critique of art and society (‘there is no message’), asking for an assessment of art that does away with the figure of the artist as ‘spokesman’, ‘critic’ or ‘messenger’, you seem to actually appreciate the possibility of expressing your point of view on themes whose impact isn’t limited to the art-world or to the world of cinema, by very means of your work. Is this the case?

I was having screenings immediately when I started making short films (albeit many were underground fests and micro-cinemas). I also had some experience in showing paintings and I was often interested in an audience reaction-I was conscience of an audience and still am. I don’t deny that. But you have to proceed with your own desire to make this work. Unlike having shows with paintings, I was able to share my films by various screening and distribution methods. With an original art object, like a painting, you do not have the opportunity to show this work in many places at once, the object takes on a magical quality due to it’s singular originality. My art object with movie making becomes a social gesture. I can show my work all over the world now. I’ve even had my short films shown on public access television (and even repeated, like a re-run). These forms of distribution, and with the ease of video and low-resolution internet movies, it was possible for me to show my work in many different types of venues and through various forms of media. Of course I would prefer to show them in more ideal situations. But now not so much, internet movies died down- and I’m also not peddling my work as much as I used to.

I like the idea of a ‘messenger’. In fact I have a short video called “The Messenger”. So I had this platform, and yes, to me it is a direct form of communication. I am projecting something forward and it may be taken one way or another, although I do have this imaginary audience it does not determine my subject or message. I remember a documentary I saw on 1960’s American visual artists- and one painter when asked why he made the work that he did- replied that he saw no one else doing it. Maybe that’s what drove me in the beginning. The desire to make this type of motion film.

Early on I was a bit more chaotic. Trying many different things. It definitely opened me up and I was out and active and participating in many festivals and curating several shows in Chicago. I would sometimes shoot in one week and have an edited piece ready to screen the next week. Maybe there were some weak moments, but that was okay. In those moments I was able to discover a better way of pacing along this information. To convey this emotive tone that I felt so strongly when creating the piece.

But yes I do appreciate expressing myself through this media. At times my creation remains mysterious to me on a logical level, but later it reveals itself. The emotive truth or my nervous system that led to me to place this cut here, and/or that sound there; felt like the right thing to do, even though the meaning may seem obscure (or even obscene!). I try to conjure up spirits with my various machines.

+ Following up from the above answer: do you think your works should be appreciated for what they are, as images and videos, or do you actually feel they should have a deeper impact, inspiring reflections and thought? Does it make any sense to look for any ‘statement’ of sort in your work?

I’m not sure if they should be appreciated or not. I wouldn’t mind if someone saw them as nothing else but just images with shapes and sounds. They can have meaning- without it having to be too deep. It can just be a visceral reaction. But certainly I would never want anybody to look too deep for a ‘statement’. I hope it’s all there on the surface.

Anyway these are all speculations on the work. Sure I appreciate reflection and thought, why not? Repeated viewing helps. To me though it can also be sickening to go over some of my work. I prefer to move forward and try and push the work I feel is the strongest. I have to say though is that I am happy with the support and attention both my wife and I have received with the most sexual and violent of our pieces. Early on, when I started making films, I was taking drugs and drinking like a fish- the work had a really chaotic feel- as if the person behind this was still working on the edit and writing as you are watching the film. I enjoyed that anxious feeling. Like an incomplete painting. Unfortunately, I think, many saw it as novice work.

+ Some contemporary artists such as Romain Slocombe, Trevor Brown (whose work has also been used on the flyer of a previous edition of the independent film festival you organize) or Max Aguilera-Hellweg seem to fetishize trauma and the visual elements which are generally associated to it (such as scars, bruises, abrasions, injuries); these artists also share a fascination with an imagery related to both medicine, injury and healing (eye-patches, stitches, wheelchairs, hospitals, nurses, surgery, etc). Now, how do you relate to the imaginary of wounding I have just outlined? Do you think your work shares any similarity to the artists I have just mentioned? Eventually, who are the people whose work you feel bears a connection to yours?

I’ve seen the work of Trevor Brown and Slocombe prior to creating the wounded images you speak of- specifically the images from the film “Traumata” with the model all bruised up and in various states of destruction; with bandages and braces on her body. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there is no reference to the wounds in “Traumata”. Was there selfinflicted cutting and violence to ones own body? Or was she beaten? And by whom? Or maybe she was in a mysterious accident and we are witnessing the growth of the wounds spreading in real-time through her body.

Kristie, my wife, is very concerned from an academic and visceral sense with this heightened and transgressive power of the body. I share this interest and I enjoy observing and exploring this state of sexual anxiety. She has been and continues to be an important collaborator. All the wheelchair images of the subject in “Traumata” were her idea. She was taking the medical accessories to another level…especially when the film negative and textures became damaged through a faulty camera. The work, like the crack in the glass of Duchamp’s ‘Bride Stripped Bare’, was complete.

I’ve always had an attraction to these types of medical images- I used to collect books on oral pathology, books on anatomy, bones and some books on diseases. I have this great nurses’ manual from the 1930’s; there is something to these images that have affected my early work in collages and drawings- and later into my films and photos. So yes I was aware of all the artists you mentioned- but I was also fascinated with the paintings of Francis Bacon, which had bodies in these clinical and violent states. There is a whole history to this traumatic-sexualized-body from fanzines, to art, music and literature like J.G Ballard’s book “Crash”, which was a cathartic experience when I read it in High School. The writings of Georges Bataille continue to hold my interest, especially his novels.

I sent Trevor Brown a series of video stills from the “Traumata” film. Trevor replied and linked the images on his site, which generated many hits on a daily basis. Those images specifically did raise much discussion. Some of the discussions raised many questions about the role of the female body; some of these issues have lead to anger and censorship. But I did just get a small grant from an arts assistance program from the city of Chicago to help me in releasing all these films on one DVD. So there is some support.

I’m trying to move away from specific psychosexual images. I try and create a gesture toward that direction, but I’m interested in some of the surrealist’s tones, and not worried about justifying the wounds. They are like surfaces with the illusion of real wounds and orifices and that pornography of flesh and sadism- they are caught in some tension of real and imagined violence. But they are also nothing more than the seduction of colors that women use with make-up. In fact many of the wound-markings are made from products women use to bruise up their eyes for beauty. I think I am re-creating a metaphysical diagram that explains all these compulsions and desires within me. And I’m not necessarily speaking of any sexual or violent act. This is closer to a fantasy of simultaneous narratives – a type of sex dream tripped up – and made flesh, made obvious to me. The patches and band-aids are part of that discovery. The sexual wound, or hole, that is a projection of what lies beneath the surface. With the case in “Traumata” the wounds each tell a past and a future of what is coming and what has happened, all infused in these genital-pox bites, spread all over the film and body.

I continue to explore this but not necessarily in any fixed idea. It just keeps changing.

 + It seems like you regard the immediacy of your work as one of its main strengths. Is this the reason why you often shoot the same actors/performers/people? Would you be at all interested in shooting with professional actors, or do you think that would be detrimental to the ‘honesty’ and the ‘intimacy’ of your work?

I’ve worked with professional and non-professionals. I think I can safely say that most of the non-professionals are acting but would never call themselves actors. Actors such as Piotr Tokarski, a brilliant filmmaker- but I love using him as an actor in my movies. The film and video knowledge he has makes it easy for me to work with him. He just gets it- and he has this corrupt presence that I enjoy. But back to your question- I think really it does not matter in terms of professional or non-professionals actors. I want actors to understand what I’m doing and take good direction. So I would say that the burden rests on my skills as a director- I should be able to work with anyone. I admit though, that I cast in a non-traditional fashion. I realize how essential it is to cast properly…that’s vital. As long as I can look at my performer in the eye and we have an understanding, then I am comfortable and can work on the project. This is why I work with the same people. It would be shallow of me to just refer to them as friends. It definitely turns into a convoluted connection that I believe to be positive. Some are friends. Some I never see again.

+ To what extent is your work ‘biographical’? To what extent does it mirror your own personal obsessions, situations you have gone through, or even just your mood at the time of shooting?

My work is and is not biographical. You can draw parallels maybe, with certain situations or scenes in my films but nothing so direct. I’m not really all that concerned with making any biographical statement nor am I so careful as to avoid any personal reference. To me all my films are markers in my time-line as an image-maker. They represent my psyche at the time and perhaps they allow me to see things in my head.

I’m hoping to avoid my moods when I’m shooting. This sort of performance aspect to shooting- where the camera exist all over the actors in a 3-d setting with no forbidden line- this was attained when I started shooting digital video and had a light weight camera. But lately I’m not interested in that type of ‘guerilla’ style- I’ve been composing more strictly. But there was a discovery and learning that went on with the earlier pieces that were shot on the fly and cut quickly. But these videos were a trilogy I refer to as the sleaze movies. Absolutely they are not porn in the typical sense, but they are perverse and have a seedy porn-feel perhaps. In some of those I relied on actors that had a creative relationship- people that knew one another, or at least had tension with each other. We played that up and we existed within that space- that hyper creation with no end in sight.

Lately though I’m avoiding all that. I’m leaning into an artificial space, where voices and bodies no longer are dependent on one another. In many ways I’ve become disgusted with some of my methods from the past work. Anyway I can’t really answer this with any sort of conclusion. To me, I have a particular sense of the world, and it pleases and frightens me when I attempt to express or reflect in this way.

+ Your videos have been showcased in various cities of the US and in several European countries: do you find that the audience’ reactions to your productions depend to a great extent on any geographical pattern of sort?

I have no idea. I’ve also played in the Philippines and India and I would have loved to have gone out there. I’ve heard positive feedbacks from most places in Europe where I continue to have screenings. I get mixed reactions here in Chicago.

+ You are both the founder and the director of the ‘Z Film Festival’, showcasing on a yearly basis a selection of independent movies with an experimental, unsettling or perverse character. Who are the directors you have met through the festival that you have been most impressed with?

I can’t really answer that question. Let’s just say that everyone I have played at the Z Film Festival is very special to me.

+ In “Slaughtered Pigtails” we are confronted with an assault and rape, where the point of view of the aggressor and that of the camera seem to collide; in “The Amateurs” you explored the possibility (a neglected one, in this case) of achieving ‘video-penetration’. Is the act of watching of particular importance to your work?

Yes watching and being watched, which one is happening exactly?


This interview is © Albert Hofer (2004), no parts of it can be reproduced without the author’s written permission.

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