Underground Film Journal

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Preview: American Arab

By Mike Everleth ⋅ November 17, 2010

So, what’s it really like for Arabs living in America these days? Filmmaker Usama Alshaibi — who was born in Iraq, but raised mostly in the U.S. — knows intimately the troubles and tribulations that comes with living with that particular heritage. Embedded above is a 13-minute sampling from his upcoming documentary from Kartemquin Films, American Arab. Part personal history and part profile of other Arabs living in America, this documentary gives a voice to an overtly misrepresented and misunderstood segment of our population.

I’ve been chronicling this film’s production and early promotion quite a bit already, so I was personally very excited to finally get quite this extensive sneak peek. In my earlier articles, I typically mention Alshaibi’s previous documentary, Nice Bombs (Amazon | Netflix), which is about his own personal journey back to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, I’ve refrained from considering American Arab a “sequel” of sorts to Nice Bombs. Although, from watching the above I think calling this new film a sequel is apt as Alshaibi explicitly says that he felt like he reconnected with his heritage during that film’s production.

American Arab woman and daughter wearing their hijab

I was also particularly struck by Alshaibi drawing specific attention to how Arabs have always been portrayed in Western media. Taking clips from films such as Back to the Future and Cannonball Run II, Alshaibi documents how Arabs very quickly went from buffoonish caricatures to be ridiculed to frightening caricatures to be feared. No wonder they were so easy to be demonized as a race right after 9/11. But, the truly sad and sickening thing is how much and how intense that demonization continues all these years later.

To counter those media images, Alshaibi also interviews other Arabs in the documentary, many of whom have received death threats, physical assaults and verbal abuse all for no other reason than for just being an Arab. Alshaibi’s skills as an interviewer are top-notch, too, which I’m sure some of comes from one of his mentors, Studs Turkel. His questions are probing and sometimes challenging, but always delivered from a position of genuine inquiry.

From all indications from this preview, American Arab, when it’s finally complete, is going to be a vital and important documentary.

To learn more about Usama Alshaibi, please visit his official website. And to learn more about Kartemquin Films, please visit their website, too.

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