Alshaibi’s feature doc “Nice Bombs” recounts journey back to his native Iraq after 20 years

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Usama and Kristie Alshaibi were awakened one morning last winter by a massive explosion at a nearby police recruitment site in Baghdad.

“The explosion was so close it shook the ground,” Usama Alshaibi recalled. “We got out of bed, and there’s my cousin, putting on his tie and giggling. He said, ?You like that? It’s a nice bomb.’ I found that a perfect analogy to sum up the morbid sense of humor the Iraqis have, and the U.S. attitude toward liberating Iraq.”

“Nice Bombs” became the title of Alshaibi’s feature documentary about visiting his occupied homeland after a 20-year exile.

Alshaibi, who runs Z Film Festival with his wife Kristie, screened a 12-minute excerpt from the doc last November in his “Video Babylon” exhibition at the Gene Siskel Film Center. He plans to complete the feature doc by next fall, possibly incorporating footage from a second potential Iraq trip.

Alshaibi was born in Baghdad in 1969, lived briefly in Iowa as a child, returned to Iraq, then fled with his family when the Iran-Iraq War broke out. He spent time in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and United Arab Emirates before moving here as a teenager and finally studying film at Columbia College.

“When the U.S. occupied Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government, there was an amazing opportunity to return with my father, and with my American wife, to a place I hadn’t been since I was a child,” Alshaibi said.

“My past with Iraq had been tumultuous and dark and filled with warfare. It was an important subject for me to explore as a person and as a filmmaker. I wanted to see with my own eyes what was happening with my country.”

The Alshaibis shot more than 50 hours of footage, focusing on Usama’s personal journey, and on capturing the details of everyday life for his relatives and other Iraqis under the occupation. “My position as both an American and an Iraqi lent itself to a unique perspective and tone that’s vital to the piece,” he said.

At the Film Center screening, some viewers criticized the fact that interviews with Iraqis are conducted in English, a choice Alshaibi defends.

“If Americans can listen to Iraqis and feel what they’re saying, maybe we’d have less of this fear and these phobic tendencies,” he said. “There’s such a great distance and mystery between the two countries, yet we’re involved in this intimate history together.”

Alshaibi is seeking $20-30,000 in finishing funds with his producers Benjamin Redgrave and Ben Berkowitz of Benzfilm Group (who co-directed the 2000 narrative feature “Straightman”).

They raised the $6,000 production budget from private donations, the largest of which came from executive producers William Haddad and legendary journalist Studs Terkel.

As the video and audio archivist for the Chicago Historical Society, Alshaibi has created a digital archive of Terkel’s vast 50-year library of audio interviews, and has videotaped Terkel at numerous appearances. Alshaibi was featured in the immigration section of Terkel’s 2003 book “Hope Dies Last.”

“I’ve interviewed him and he’s interviewed me, and we’ve grown very close over the years,” Alshaibi said. “I told him I was interested in going back to Iraq, and he pushed me to go. Some of my work was influenced by his oral histories, the importance of capturing these stories as historically and culturally significant.”

See www.dancehabibi.com.

? by Ed M. Koziarski, edk@homesickblues.com

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