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Much has been written and filmed about the effect that 9/11 and the Iraq War have had on America, from Michael Moore’s anti-Bush screed “Fahrenheit 9/11” to Charles Ferguson’s sober and even-handed “No End in Sight” to crackpot conspiracy anthem “Zeitgeist: The Movie.” Precious few of the post-9/11 films have examined the effect that event has had on the lives of Americans of Middle Eastern descent here at home; instead, the focus has been largely on geopolitics and the war itself. Even when the subject of anti-Arab sentiment in America is touched upon, it has usually been within the context of political polarization and war-mongering rather than a “boots on the ground” account.
In his documentary “American Arab,” Iraqi-American director Usama Alshaibi examines the challenges and complexities of Arab identity in America today. The film shares the stories of several Arab Americans and portrays their common experiences in a way that is at turns warm, thoughtful, humorous, frustrating, infuriating and frightening. The interviews are framed by Alshaibi’s personal journey of reflection on his own identity and experiences as an Arab American, son, brother, husband and father.
The subjects interviewed in this film are a diverse lot, ranging from a family of Iraqi refugees who are newcomers to America to a Muslim woman born in America who is the victim of a hate crime following the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, to a young punk-rock guitarist who represents a nontraditional fusion of both Arab and American cultures. The common thread among all these stories is that their identities have been shaped by forces beyond their control — war, tradition, prejudice and fear.
Later, the film takes a dark turn when Alshaibi himself becomes the apparent victim of a hate crime when he is assaulted after drunkenly entering a house party uninvited. In the aftermath, Alshaibi comes under fire from those in the public who reject his allegations. Alshaibi is painfully aware his account of the assault is at best unclear and, at worst, unreliable due to his intoxicated state at the time. As a result, we see him struggle with a spectrum of emotions, ranging from anger to depression to self-doubt. It’s this inner conflict, rather than the assault itself, that punctuates the film’s theme of identity.
Alshaibi deftly mixes archival footage, interviews, animation and music to engage the viewer in an open conversation about a provocative topic. The film was produced by Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself“), whose mission is to create films that engage communities in a dialogue about social policy. While the film gives an important voice to the hopes and frustrations of several generations of Arab Americans, there is also much that is relatable to audiences regardless of creed or culture. Billed as a “Coming of Arab Story,” the struggle with acceptance and search for identity is a universal one. There are no easy answers in “American Arab,” but it’s a conversation well worth having.
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