Usama Alshaibi doesn't think of himself as a model refugee-turned-citizen. He's neither a poster-child immigrant that Democratic strategists could parade around as a shining example of what happens when the United States opens its arms to Arabs, nor the bomb-wielding anti-American terrorist that President Donald Trump would have us believe immigrants from Iraq must be.
He didn't join the military or die fighting for the United States in its war that destroyed his home country of Iraq. He was an average student. He experimented with sex and LSD. He found himself in the punk-rock scene of the ’80s. He drew inspiration from the Beats. Kids teased him because of his name and ridiculed him as a foreigner; when he visited his family in Iraq, he was viewed as an outsider American — a misfit. Negotiating sexual liberation, drugs, punk and Islam hasn't been exactly easy for him, or something he's been inclined to talk about in the context of his Arab-American identity.
As an adult living in Chicago around the turn of the century, he became a vital force in the underground movie scene, making experimental films and videos he calls "transgressive cinema," much of which less artsy audiences might write off as troubling, unwatchable porn.
In 2004, Alshaibi returned to war-ravaged Iraq with his wife, Kristie Alshaibi. The couple visited the family he had not seen since he was a child. From that visit, he made the documentary Nice Bombs. He went on to direct American Arab in 2013, a look at multiple Arab-American identities and the rise of xenophobia. That film played on PBS and has become a staple on the university-classroom documentary circuit.
While those films have conveyed some of his experience to older audiences, Alshaibi longed for a way to show his daughter what it was like to grow up in Iraq at the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, to live with bombs dropping around his family, to flee the nation, to leave behind his beloved dog Snoopy, and to move to Saudi Arabia and then the United States.
Alshaibi, who now lives in Boulder and teaches communications and film studies at Colorado State University, was showing the animated autobiographical films Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis to his students when he decided he wanted to make a similar film about his experiences — something that would convey the emotional trauma he went through to his daughter and to the U.S. public at large.
The film Boy From War — Alshaibi is currently in the last days of crowdfunding for pre-production — will be an intervention in an increasingly xenophobic United States, a country that has become unmoored from its core values, the filmmaker says. It will tell the story of his memories of war in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, fleeing the bombs, and then growing up in Iowa City's punk scene in the era of Star Wars and Ronald Reagan, suffering from PTSD and dabbling in LSD.
It's the kind of story that has become all too uncommon in an era when both left- and right-wing politicians work tirelessly to control the narrative of immigrants, who get lumped into one homogenous image — whether that be good people seeking a better life for their wholesome families, as patronizing liberals tell it, or dangerous criminals, as the xenophobic right wing opines.
Ours is a divisive time in which political calculations about who represents immigrants have managed to drown out distinct stories of individuals and their experiences — which are much messier than either party would have the public believe. After all, no humans are tidy.
And as the pols battle it out and bigoted rhetoric spreads, the image of the United States as a safe haven and a place where people around the world can come fulfill their dreams has largely crumbled. "I feel like we've lost something," Alshaibi says of this country. "There's been this loss of understanding the true American spirit, who we are. To be cheesy for a second, the Statue of Liberty represents something. America is like the last hope for a lot of us."
He wants his story to serve as a compelling narrative that high schools use to teach students about what the American experience is, that refugees are part of it, that it's a nation of immigrants who are real people with complicated lives, whose scars don't have to be hidden in exploitative political calculations.
It's an ambitious project, one Alshaibi likens to The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler's List or Roots — the type of narrative that reveals histories too often swept away. "This is a story that needs to be part of our American experience, our American fabric," he says.
And for that story to work, he has to tell it like it is — wearing his experiences on his sleeve without sanitizing them so that he's likable.
"These kind of flawed characters are exactly what people need to see," he says. "You can't go being completely displaced from your country, being made fun of because your name's Usama, having conflicts with your own religion as being a Muslim, being traumatized by war.... What? You think you're going to come out okay? No. You're a little messed up. And that's okay.
"Once I was honest about that, I said, 'I'm going to tell my story as honestly as I can and just see what happens,'" he continues. "What I realized is that others found something familiar that they recognized in that, in all its flaws and complexity and my layered past, who I am."
His movie has the potential to be a beautiful, funny, tragic and redemptive one. It could join the growing canon of films and graphic novels telling stories of the Middle East: Persepolis, Waltz With Bashir and the brilliant and salty autobiographical novel The Arab of the Future.
"The politicians can scream all they want about this and that topic, but we the people of America make this country, and we are more diverse now than we have ever been," he says. "We are truly mixing — a melting pot. Yeah. It's happening, and it's gonna happen.
"But the pop culture that we're in is not reflecting that," he continues. "The pop culture is not reflecting our true demographic. We still get the blond white protagonist who saves the day. But that's not really our story anymore. We need more immigrants on the screen. We need more Latinos. We need more brown people. We need a truer mirror of what our culture looks like now, and it's mixed!"
Alshaibi observes that without more diverse representations in pop culture, too many who don't fit the straight-white-protagonist mold wind up feeling isolated.
"It's so crazy how important it is for a young person, or any person, to be able to look up at the screen and say, 'That person is speaking to me. Okay. I get this.' Why do I think that's important? Because nobody should ever feel alone, that somehow they're different or that nobody understands them," he concludes. "I think that's at the heart of why I'm making this film."
You can donate to the Boy From War crowdfunding campaign here.
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