Interview with Usama Alshaibi, Director of American Arab
Usama Alshaibi, director of American Arab, just took the film to IDFA for its world premiere. Before he left, he reflected upon on making "a coming of Arab" narrative that not only includes his own story, but the stories of other Arab-American navigating the waters of post 9/11 America.
Questions & transcription by Arpita Aneja, Fall '13 intern.
What were your goals in making this film, and do you think you’ve met them?
I wanted to make something accessible, and I wanted to make something that talks about the Arab-American experience without it being a public relations campaign that shows: 'Oh, look at all the successful Arabs.' I didn't want to do that. I wanted to show real people living their lives, and I also wanted it to be something that young people can watch and benefit from and be educated with. I think anyone that comes from the Middle East, that comes from Asia, that comes from mixed ethnicity, that has a name that is Muslim or Arab, was affected after 9/11. Everybody was affected after 9/11. I think that you need to tell this story and make some sense of what we all went through. And I hope that it can be a learning tool for young people, to help them navigate this complex country we live, and their identity within that. I think it was successful. A lot of the stories have to do about growing up, a coming of age with these complex feelings of who we are.
How do you feel about your film premiering at IDFA?
Oh my god, I won the lottery! That’s it, man, that’s what I hoped for, that’s what I got. IDFA is a phenomenal documentary film festival. I’m also going with my partner in crime, Bill Siegel, who’s showing The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Interestingly enough, Muhammad Ali was a very famous Muslim-American who again was treated badly, and you could see the bigotry and the prejudice, not just for being African American, but also for declaring himself a Muslim. The films are connected that way and we're both trying to talk about these very important American stories, and how we as citizens are making our way and not bowing down to how others want us to behave, but saying this is who we are.
How did working with Kartemquin help you develop your film?
I had 45 years of Kartemquin’s legacy behind me, and I worked with Gordon Quinn who was someone I admired and learned from. And so all along the way… he was giving me advice and helping me shape the film as we went along, and allowing me to test my instincts as an artist and as a filmmaker in the position that I was interested in, and how I wanted to present this work. He was very supportive of that. And obviously having the Kartemquin films name attached to this helped this receive more funding. I got to work with people like Leslie Simmer and Matt Lauterbach, who edited the film and had experience working on documentaries, specifically Kartemquin documentaries. It was a nice union. You know, I was concerned that my voice or my vision as a filmmaker would be lost within the Kartemquin universe, but actually it was the opposite. I was encouraged to find my voice and make my own-- and it was very much my own-- film.
What was the most challenging thing about shooting this film?
Everything. I think when it started I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. And I knew about Amala Abusumayyah, the young woman from Chicago who was attacked. I had seen that story in the news. So that was something that I knew was a common problem that was happening in my country and throughout the world. She was someone that I wanted to talk with. And then it expanded to Marwan who I very much related to, and he was really outside of the stereotype of the Arab-American. Both of their stories were compelling, but what I was trying to do was figure out how I related to them, and how my story connected. Many things happened to me personally in my life. I didn’t really realize at the time that all of these new experiences started to come into the film. I think the most surprising and disturbing aspect was when I was attacked [and called racial slurs] when I moved back to Iowa. It fit into the theme of my work: we’re trying to go through our lives and then there’s this bigger picture that keeps affecting us, sometimes violently and sometimes not, but in my case, it was. At first when the film started I didn’t really see where it was going, and I just had to sit and wait. I think with documentaries, life has to unfold and my life was unfolding in a very dramatic way.
Has your view of what an American Arab is changed since making this film?
Definitely. You know, the tag line of the film is a coming of Arab story and that's a very accurate description of the documentary and also my own process. No one’s really aware of their ethnicity. You don't think, 'Oh, I'm this, or I'm that,' you're just a person... but when others view you a certain way... you're reminded of what you are and where you're from, how we think of you, and then you kind of have to answer to that and think of yourself in a certain way. That process is an interesting metamorphosis. Some people deny it, some people embrace it, and some have complicated relationships with it. I think that kind of identity that is encompassing what a lot of Americans go through. So for me it was kind of an embrace for that identity as an Arab-American and also a letting go of that. And I think that it speaks for itself that the title is American Arab and I think it's okay to have those contradictions, and to embrace it and also let go of it. That's something I am okay with. I hope that’s what people get out of this film. That it's okay to not align yourself with any known identity, it's kind of up to you.
In an earlier interview with us, you said you wanted young people especially to view the film. Who do you hope will see the film and has it changed since you've made the film?
I do want young people to see it. I hope to speak in high schools and colleges. I hope everyone sees it. I mean the film is made for general Americans. I think it's very important for the general American population to get inside the homes and inside the heads of Arab-Americans and see what they're going through. For so long, others have been trying to tell our story, Arabs and Muslims, and we need more of us to tell our own stories, and not apologize and be okay showing who we are. I hope it inspires others.
How do you hope American Arab will affect the people who watch it, or effect change in America?
I think people will see that this is unfortunately a common story, when you look at the internment camps for Japanese Americans in World War II. That was a dark moment, and we look back at it with disdain. If people watch this at least they can sympathize with others that have gone through this. Just to realize the humanity for the people in the film. That racist depictions of Arabs and Muslims and how people talk about Arabs has an effect on society, and has an effect on a young person who's trying to find themselves, and that it is racism and it is bigotry, and there's real consequences for this. And it's time to tell this story, and it's time to have a conversation about this. I hope this film can do that, spark this conversation.
American Arab is hoping to play more US and international festivals in 2014. International rights to the film were sold at IDFA. US rights are still available.
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