Usama Alshaibi wins Kartemquin Fellowship

Usama Alshaibi, who made the acclaimed feature-length doc “Nice Bombs,” about his native Iraq, is the recipient of the first Kartemquin Films’ Diversity Fellowship.

Alshaibi, who was chosen from among dozens of candidates from the Great Lakes region, will receive salary support for his project and access to all of Kartemquin’s facilities and services for one year.

The $35,000 value of the Fellowship was underwritten by the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Winning the Fellowship “feels fantastic,” Alshaibi said, calling it “an honor to be working with the talented producers and staff at Kartemquin.”

The first step in the Fellowship process will be to secure funding for his project. Grant writing assistance will be provided as part of the Fellowship services.

Alshaibi said he was inspired by Kartemquin’s “Hoop Dreams” to become a filmmaker when he first arrived in Chicago 15 years ago. His Fellowship project will be a documentary adaptation of Toufic El-Rassi’s graphic novel, “Arab in America,” in which El-Rassi is the narrator and tour guide.

He tells the personal story of a young boy, born in Lebanon and raised in Chicago, and the tensions he faces growing up as an Arab immigrant in the American landscape.

Woven between El-Rassi’s painful coming-of-age story are other Arab American stories of harassment, racism and scrutiny by federal officials.

Alshaibi said he felt the need to make this film because Arab Americans have no authentic voice speaking for them to counteract the painful stereotypes that exist.

“Arab Americans represent a demographic of contemporary America that needs a voice and escapulations of recent history,” he said.

“The Arab-American experience is not just an immigrant experience, although it is that. It’s a global issue that is affecting everyone. Arabs around the world are facing misrepresentation.”

The DVD release of “Nice Bombs,” the doc he produced in 2004, will be celebrated at two free screenings at the Portage theatre Oct. 16, presented by the filmmaker and distributor Cinema Obscura.

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.

He has produced some 30 shorts, many of which have exhibited at international film festivals. He is the recipient of a generous 2005 grant from the Creative Capital Foundation for the Arts, a Playboy Foundation Award, and won the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award.