Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Conversation with Usama Alshaibi About Nice Bombs

Usama Alshaibi smiles frequently. Luckily, he’s got a beautiful, toothy grin. The lower half of his face is covered by a black forest of stubble that’s too short to be called a beard but too thick to be called anything else.

If it were any other season, we would call it a Friday evening—but it’s summer, so we say Friday afternoon (the Sun, after all, isn’t setting for a while). Alshaibi’s 2006 documentary Nice Bombs begins its first theatrical runs next week, and I’ve come by the apartment he shares with his wife and frequent collaborator, Kristie Alshaibi, to talk about the movie. I’m early, and one of the Alshaibis’ neighbors lets me up, asking whether I’m here for the party.

After a brief tour and a demonstration of Kristie's Theremin, Usama and I sit down in the living room, which is spacious and neatly kept.

Nice Bombs has had a longer gestation than a lot of your other work.

Oh, yeah absolutely. I mean it’s my trying to branch out beyond dirty basements and underground fests. Nothing against dirty basements and underground fests, but always with this movie I was trying to appeal to a broader audience. I mean, I still make all sorts of films that I know are not gonna have any commercial success or theatrical distribution—but, eventually, they get in other festivals and on compilations. But with Nice Bombs there’s an immediacy I wanted. I wanted to get it out there and I wanted other people to help me out.

Maybe it doesn’t have a longer gestation, maybe there’s a kind of inverse relationship: some of [your short] films were made very quickly but it took them a very long time to…well, they’ll play at festivals for years. With Nice Bombs it took you a long time to make it—you started it in 2004, so it took two years and now it’s getting theatrical distribution a year later.

But, as you know, as film business goes, it’s not unusual in my time frame. It’s pretty normal. I mean, if I were a big production, it would take the same amount of time. What we spent so much time on was post-production. I was really able to do a lot and focus on things in a way I wasn’t able to before. I had access to real studios and engineers and a full ensemble of musicians who were writing music for specific scenes…and that was weird…what was the question?

Well, it was more of a statement. It seems like a lot of…well, for example, King for a Day seems to have come together very quickly.

Well, King for a Day, that musical I was doing kind of quietly until it was out there because I wasn’t sure it was gonna make it.

Going back to Nice Bombs—with Nice Bombs the first time we showed it in Chicago it was a much longer cut, and since then I’ve edited it down to 76 minutes, which, to me, has made it an even more powerful film.

Was this the one that was screened at the Music Box?

Yeah. So, from that period on, I got distribution and now it’s getting a theatrical release…I think also it is technically my first feature. To have this kind of success—for me, it’s great. Some other filmmakers will be like, “Whatever.” But for me, a ten day run at the Pioneer and a release at the Gene Siskel [Film Center] and hopefully more…well, I’ve never gotten that before. I think it’s a testament to the film and everyone who’s worked on it.

Even though I do use my story and myself, I’ve also made it very accessible. People who have always disliked my work, relatives who just don’t go near my stuff, it’s very appealing to them, and I like that. Even my wife’s relatives, who live in the Midwest. Regular folks. Americans from suburban neighborhoods. Republicans watch this and they really dig it, they’re really into it. They get attached to the characters—the people in the movie. So I think that’s something new that I’ve discovered about myself and what I’m capable of. If I just take these risks and put myself out there, and get away from these boundaries, these artificial boundaries that we set for ourselves when we make any form of art, you know?

I think making films oftentimes involves leaping in, leaping into something. We have, I guess, the myth of individuality, but you have to let the world in, not shut it out.

Absolutely. And to me it’s also gotta be exciting. If it scares me, if I’m, like, nervous, if I’m like “I don’t know if I can do this,” that means the project is good. I’m on to something. If it’s like, “Oh, I know this, this is easy, this is already done in my head”—well, why go through the process? I guess I like discovering things.

The documentary element is not necessarily new, because I also approached my narrative work like that. Some of my early shorts had no script, just a very abstract idea. Or I’d be writing as I was shooting. But with this, it was even more abstract. I was able to kind of take all of that and put it into something coherent. But the experience and the film are almost two different things. Experience inspired me to take the camera and do all of this stuff, but my internalized experience and its connection to the film is something I have that makes things exciting and significant for me. So now I’m approaching everything like that. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Part of it and part of what I do is a mystery. It’s a dark tunnel I’m walking into and I only have a little light. Stuff might come out…[laughs] Open to the unexpected.

Do you feel like Nice Bombs was a continuation of your work or do think it’s more of an expansion? Because it doesn’t…to an outside observer it seems odd. To someone who has never met you and has only seen your movies, it seems like a strange direction to take.

Well, what was the longest film I did before that? Muhammad and Jane. All about a European-Iraqi character who comes back to the United States. He was just in Iraq and the United States in the movie is preparing to go to war. It’s this fictional aspect to real life, to something that was happening politically in the street. In fact, we shot part of the movie at an Iraq war protest, and, I think it was on my mind.

Ignatius, I always had this idea that I would go back to Iraq before I picked up a camera and started making films. It seemed like a natural progression. I don’t really think I have enough work out there on this scale to say I have any set way of doing things. I like to surprise myself. I don’t feel like I’m locked down in any sort of genre or form of filmmaking.

Well, maybe it’s best not to have a set way of doing things. Maybe it’s best just to approach everything as if you’ve never done it before.

It’s funny that you say that, because my next film, which is called Baghdad, Iowa, sort of takes what I love about documentaries and takes what I like about fiction filmmaking and blends it in this not really noticeable way. Because documentary is also a form of fiction-making. People don’t realize that. You’re still manipulating information to convey something.

Tell me about Baghdad, Iowa.

I started this a while ago, sort of quietly, because I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes until it’s forming. It was really a sort of organic process. It came out of wanting philosophically to explore more of Nice Bombs, but also realizing that I had to end this movie and couldn’t keep going on and expounding for hours. And so Nice Bombs was in a way looking back to the Middle East, to my past there and then returning—completing something. Baghdad, Iowa is my returning here. And I came from Baghdad, Iraq and landed in Iowa, which is the first place I lived in the United States. My father went to school in Iowa City, Iowa. So my impression of the world was very Americanized but also was Iraqi. And the movie is an exploration of that, in a very surreal way.

You said earlier—I think at the very beginning of the interview—that to you Nice Bombs was a film with a broader appeal, a movie that was meant to be shown more theatrically, rather than at small festivals.

I guess I wanted to make something accessible, I wanted to make something that didn’t have…I guess what I’ve saying is that, since my experience is so unique, I didn’t have a very good perspective on it. Because it was so much about my experience, I needed outside eyes. So I got producers and I worked with editors. I even had a test audience. Just to make sense of it. There was stuff that I just assumed people would figure out. I was very careful—you have to keep in mind, Ignatius, that were a lot of Iraqi docs that came out around that time and before mine, very quickly. And I didn’t want to make something that just lasted until the war ended. I wanted to make something specifically about the situation, but also universal. I think that’s what I learned—a certain mythology that applies to everyone, then you’ve created something more powerful than the specifics of a narrative.

Do you think that Nice Bombs is an American film?

I would have to say that [long pause] it is an American film, because it's about a journey that ends in America, and I think that a lot of immigrants have restless blood in their systems and in their families because they’re not content and something, politically or socially, brings them to places like the West, or America. But at the same time, there’s that great pride in heritage—which is very American. Returning to a place and realizing that you don’t belong is an American story. It’s played in a very literal way—because there’s war, it’s very dramatic. I wouldn’t dare to say I’m an “Iraqi” Iraqi. But at the same time, I am from Iraq. Being an Iraqi American is a closer citizenship title. I feel American.

You can make an American film without being an American. There are more great American films than great American filmmakers.

I do like this idea that things can be international and I always strive to make things that can be appreciated on an abstract level: no dialogue just sounds, visuals. I do feel that Nice Bombs has an international appeal, and I want to make more films like that. I do feel that I have an American vibe that comes out in the movie, especially some of my ignorance and stupidity. Being in a place and just…“What the fuck am I doing?” And being very self-indulgent in that approach. That’s the only way I know how to be; I can’t pretend to be this Arab man, because I’m not. I think my cousin in the movie reflects a lot of that in me…
I think there’s a cowboy attitude—an adventurous, risk-taking quality about Americans. A lot of my cousins that live here thought I was nuts. They were the ones that protested the most, telling me I was crazy.

I remember your mother in the film threatening to disown you.

That we actually cut out. We’re gonna put it on the DVD extras.

She still remembers that, and was still mad after I got back. I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but she had a picture of me near her bed, and she set it [motions placing a photograph face down] so that she didn’t have to look at me. What I went through to make this film! [laughs] Everything’s cool now, though.

You talked earlier about the other Iraq films that came out from 2004 to 2006. For me, what separates your movie from them, is that, in documentaries, especially in American documentaries, there’s a tendency to play dumb, to make a movie to “explain” something rather than document it. Iraq is a situation that’s very hard to explain. Instead of having an explanation and using images to back it up, you’re going out and showing us something, and because of that we might draw a conclusion.

In some ways, I’d say it’s your most subversive film, not in the sense that it’s actively trying to subvert us, but that it is subverting us. I’ve seen it, and I’m infected, I’m sick with Nice Bombs, because there are moments in it I’m going to remember any time I think about Iraq for long enough.

Is it because you felt like you were taken there?

It’s little things. The cat with the flies swarming around its face, and then the old man comes and throws it off screen. Or your father playing with his camcorder. It’s little moments like that that make it a much more human film.

It also makes it a more complicated, a more contradictory film. There’s a tendency to streamline statements, to make sure there aren’t any contradictions in them…

You’re tapping into something there, because, yes, on one layer I’m constructing this portrait, but my internal linear narrative is based on something slightly mysterious to me. There’s no logic or rationale. So, when you remember those flies—I reacted the same way when I saw it and shot it, but I had to bring that emotion in, I had to leave it up there for a little bit and make sure that it worked each time. Because I was reacting to something, and I was hoping that others were [as well]—and they were. I don’t know what’s inside of that, and that meaning keeps changing.

Which is, I think, what makes it better, because you’re not something concrete to each moment. It’s an image that’s mysterious, and as an audience, we project something on to it.

I think any time you are watching a film, you start asking, questioning these basic things inside yourself. Like, for example, people who are sympathetic to the cat: does it bother them? Do they ever ask themselves: “Why do I care about this cat? There’s war, there are all these things going on, why do I care?” There’s a dilemma, there’s this draw, this emotional pull. We can’t help it.

I was also very conscious of animals throughout the whole movie.

Well, it’s not the first cat we see…

There’s a monkey, the dogs…[laughs] I guess I was looking for things that reminded me of my childhood but, in the context of war, were really quite alarming. You almost wouldn’t look at it, but, if you understood animals…the way that dog was behaving, with his tail between his legs, you know this dog has been severely beaten. When dogs have been abused, they’re so terrified to be near you.

The only dead people that you see [in the movie] are from when I was shooting the TV screen, on the news.

Otherwise it would just turn into a Frontline documentary. That’s fine. That’s their job and they’re good at it. I couldn’t do that, and, instead of fighting it and spending 20 years on it, I just let go and allowed everything to unfold, almost treating it like I was on vacation…

It feels like it’s assembled from home videos…well, it is assembled from home videos. I mean, you’re shooting it with your family. To me, that’s one of the contradictions of it: there’s a grimness to it, but people are still being very playful. It’s not all gloom and doom.

And that would have been a bad idea. I can show a situation, and I can show a mood that was there, but it’s up to…well, I there were some parts were the music was little melancholy and that was on purpose, but I didn’t want to be too over the top.

There is humor. I have a morbid sense of humor--my cousins, my relatives have it. That, to me, is like coping. What else can you do? What else but crack a joke. It seems like the obvious conclusion.

The name of the movie is a joke itself.

Yeah, my sister got mad. She told me to change the title, until I explained it. I think it’s fine.

I’m really proud of it. If I was assassinated tomorrow, I could say, “At least I made Nice Bombs…and some of these smaller, perverted films…”

Now you’re doing the radio thing…


Is it something you would’ve pursued if you hadn’t made Nice Bombs? Did making Nice Bombs open you up…

Totally. Opportunities, grants, [jokingly] celebrities, V.I…V.I...V.I.Ps…

I was considering going back to my old skill, washing dishes as a prep cook. I’ve done the most disgusting jobs imaginable. Migrant worker, slave labor. So getting work at Chicago Public Radio, being able to go out and make these mini audio documentaries, it’s great. I love it, I’m getting good at it—they don’t have to be these serious things, I can just make profiles…

I like audio. I always used to seek out other professionals that were good at audio, and now I’m getting better at it. It’s like training. I’m digging the job. It keeps me fresh and it makes me more excited about my work and it makes me delve deeper into things.