Usama Alshaibi, director/producer of “American Arab”
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Usama Alshaibi, director/producer of “American Arab” took time to talk to The Film Yap via e-mail about the film, the current situation in the Middle East, his family and his creative influences.
The Film Yap: “American Arab” is obviously a very personal film; can you tell us how you got started on this project and what your vision for it was at that time?
Alshaibi: I was noticing that there was this rising hate and hostility toward Arabs and Muslims in the United States, and it was typically based on racists’ ideas, so I wanted to make a film that exposed these racist sentiments and also exposed who Arab Americans really are. The United States of America is home to almost four million Arab Americans that are very much part of the fabric of this country. But the media and the movies in the United States depict us like crazed, inhuman terrorists. Those depictions make it easier for Americans to dehumanize us and bomb our homelands. I’m saying Arabs are not only part of the United States, but we are part of the formation of America. Can you imagine the United States without Casey Kassim, Ralph Nader, Danny Thomas or even Steve Jobs? All of them are Arab Americans. So I wanted to talk about that, but also tell the human story of who we are. Like Amal Abusumayah in my film. She was born in Chicago and raised by Palestinian parents. She has the right to live freely and wear her hijab if she wants to. That is her right as an American. So when a bigot tries to pull off her head scarf and tell her to go back to where she came from, that is the dark spot of America I’m discussing. Every Arab in the United States has experienced this type of harassment and racism in the United States, and we are sick of it.
One of the challenges for a documentary filmmaker is adapting to the story as it evolves and goes in unexpected directions. What would you say was the most surprising development over the course of this project?
Alshaibi: When I started the project, I was mainly focused on other people and wanted my own personal story to be more of a secondary narrative. But life moves on even if you are working on a documentary. I moved away from Chicago and had a baby girl with my wife in Iowa; these elements became part of the narrative of the film. My story became part of the bigger story. And I’m OK with that. In a way, it was easier for me to show more of my life and be very open about it.
What is your favorite memory from working on “American Arab?”
Alshaibi: My favorite memory is part of my life and the film: That would be the birth of my daughter, Muneera.
You’ve described this film as a “Coming of Arab story” and, as it shows, much of the Arab American experience is influenced by events in the Middle East. With the increasing violence in the region given the Syrian Civil War and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, what are your thoughts on how this will influence the “Coming of Arab story” of the next generation of Arab Americans depicted in your film, such as the young Jassar girls or your own daughter?
Alshaibi: Well, the younger generation needs to know what we went through as Arabs in America. They need to understand that after the attacks on the Twin Towers, that Arabs and Muslims were targeted, questioned, put in jails and abused. Hate crimes went up, and the media and the general American population was indifferent to it. So they need to see this and realize that the United States is their country and to speak out and be vocal about injustice. I want the younger generation to realize that they have a right to be angry. They have a right to speak up and speak out for their human rights and dignity.
Following up the previous question, your 2006 documentary “Nice Bombs” was about your family back in Baghdad. How are they dealing with the current situation in Iraq?
Alshaibi: It’s been rough. My father is in northern Iraq, and I’m very worried about him. I have family all over Baghdad, and I’m heartbroken and disturbed to see all the violence and darkness. I’m also Palestinian, and you see the total violence and death inflicted on Palestinians by Israel. It’s been a nightmare. But unfortunately, this is common for us.
I thought the visual design and music for “American Arab” was impressive. Could you tell us a little about working with your production team to create the look and sound for this film?
Alshaibi: Thank you. Most of the design came from my background in art. I come from a more underground film background, so the visuals and music are very much part of the narrative. I also work with some talented animators. And Marwan Kamel, who also stars in the film, wrote and composed all the music. Marwan and I are both Arab but both of us have this punk aesthetic, so it was a good fit.
You have a background as a visual artist, photographer and a filmmaker. What artists and directors would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?
Alshaibi: I enjoy the films of Chris Marker, Luis Buñuel, Fatih Akın, Catherine Breillat, and Gaspar Noé, and I love all sorts of art, but was really into the paintings of Francis Bacon. Also I was really influenced by the Cinema of Transgression and all underground films.
What projects are you currently working on, or what’s next for you?
Alshaibi: I’m currently working on a new surreal film that is part fiction and non-fiction called “Baghdad, Iowa.”
It was just recently announced that Passion River Films picked up “American Arab” for release on DVD and video on demand. Congratulations! What is the experience like of getting a film on the festival circuit and securing a deal for distribution?
Alshaibi: It’s been a process! Digital distribution is the wave of the future, and I’m thrilled to be working with Passion River Films. It’s important for me to get my film out there so everyone has a chance to see it. I work with a great documentary company, Kartemquin Films, and they are like a second family to me. I feel that my film will be taken care of long after I’m gone.
You’ve lived in small towns, as well as big cities like Chicago. If you could pick one thing, what would you want a Midwestern audience like the one at Indy Film Fest to take away after watching your film?
Alshaibi: Arabs value community and family and reaching out to help your neighbor. These are all traits that I grew up with in Midwestern America. The American way of life is very much in sync with the Arab way of life.
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