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‘Boy From War’ Filmmakers Describe Power Of Animation To Present Trauma Of War

Usama Alshaibi, who’s directed the films “Nice Bombs,” and “American Arab,” has embarked on a new project: an animated film called “Boy From War.”

The documentary is described as a “coming of age” film based on Alshaibi’s own experiences. It aims “to make sense and find meaning in a scattered childhood filled with war, migration, and the struggles of finding oneself in the world.”

Alshaibi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1969. He spent his formative years living between the United States and the Middle East.

He is a filmmaker and visual artist, with several short films, documentaries and feature films to his credit. His films have screened at underground and international film festivals and have been broadcast on television stations across the globe.

In early 2004, nine months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Usama and his wife returned to his birthplace to shoot his first feature documentary, “Nice Bombs.” The documentary had a theatrical release in Chicago and New York and a broadcast premiere on the Sundance Channel.

His second documentary film, “American Arab,” was produced under a Diversity Fellowship at the Chicago documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films (known for “Hoop Dreams”). The documentary had a world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and an American premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

“Boy From War”’s producer Eman Akram Nader is a filmmaker, writer, and producer from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Chicago, Illinois. She told Shadowproof that “the idea of cinematic social inquiry is what drives her work,” which she uses as a vehicle to address sociopolitical and cross-cultural themes including feminism, migration, human rights, duality, and displacement, in both narrative and documentary film.

Her experimental narrative short film, “Ennem,” about her grandmother’s death in Saudi Arabia and women being excluded from burial services, screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and was part of the IMOW’s Muslima Exhibition. Among her current projects, she is working on a documentary started in 2009 that chronicles her nomadic childhood and travels between the U.S. and Middle East.

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I interviewed Alshaibi and Nader about the subject of their unique and stunning project, “Boy From War.”

ROQAYAH CHAMSEDDINE: Tell us more about what set “Boy From War” in motion and how you got involved in creating it (or being the producer, in Eman’s case).

USAMA ALSHAIBI: I spend a lot time with my daughter, who just turned five, and she loves cartoons and will always respond to any show that has animation. It triggered an idea in my head. I have always wanted to tell my story, when I was a boy living in Iraq at the start of the Iran and Iraq war and what I went through. I had a dog that I loved and my siblings and I were adjusting to life in our homeland after being in the United States for several years. But by the time the Iran and Iraq war started, I was deeply traumatized by it. Every night as the bombs fell from the sky, I was convinced we were all going to die. This story, and leaving my dog and leaving our home in Iraq, had a profound effect on me. It was the 1980s, and the Cold War was being played out in these proxy wars in Iraq. So, my family escaped and we lived a kind of ungrounded life as I became a teenager.

When I started thinking about making this film, I couldn’t just pull from our family photographs and old Super 8mm films. We had none during that time. I don’t have one single photo of my dog or our time during the war. So, as a documentary filmmaker, this was an incredible challenge. My first step was to reconstruct the time, the place, the mood, all from the perspective of my younger ten-year old self. I began with interviewing my mother, my sister, and started to put the pieces together. I love the idea of how animation could give life to this dark space.

And I also asked myself: how do I tell my painful story to my young daughter? To me, the answer was the use of animation as an empathic vehicle for our emotions.

EMAN AKRAM NADER: Usama is a dear friend and mentor, and we share a kinship and common background as people who have migrated across borders and cultures with hybrid and hyphenate identities. I’ve always admired his work addressing his Middle Eastern past and identity and exploring his memories, my first exposure being the film “Nice Bombs.” And I had the opportunity to work with him in the recent past on his doc, “American Arab.”

Being involved with “American Arab” was important for me as it mirrors my own experience here in the States navigating through my adolescence as a Muslim and multi-hyphenate American. Usama and I regularly talk about current events and issues happening, whether back home there or home here. So there’s an ongoing dialogue and insight into our place within it all along with our thoughts and concerns—be it instances of misrepresentation or discrimination happening to ourselves, those we know and love, and fellow citizens in our communities. Only recently we talked of the horrific images of children living in war and how these images, when viral, impact an audience that is not accustomed to the realities that people in war zones perpetually live through.

So, when Usama approached me about the idea for “Boy From War” and asked if I’d like to come on board as producer I was immediately drawn to the narrative and felt it was important and timely and no doubt I had to help bring it to life. This led to bringing a dear friend on board, artist and animator Caroline Voagen Nelson, whose body of work in grad school focuses on crafting narratives from folklore and retelling histories through animation. Caroline Voagen Nelson, the graphic artist and animator, created a teaser that served as a visual aid in our funding pursuits as well as our current Indiegogo campaign. She truly set the aesthetic tone to what the story of “Boy From War” can look and feel like in its future potential. We’re really excited to keep moving forward and eventually build a talented team of animators to continue our efforts to make this feature.

CHAMSEDDINE: What makes this film necessary? In other words, what pushed you to create this film and why would the public benefit from watching it?

ALSHAIBI: In the film studies class that I teach at Colorado State University, I screened the animated documentary, “Waltz with Bashir.” The film about the director’s inner struggles when he was a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war resonated strongly with me. My typically rowdy students, who can barely sit through the credits at the end of our class screenings, were glued to their seats sitting silently; this animated film clearly had an emotional impact on them as well.

It struck me that this way of telling a story, using animation as expression through the human hand, helps present trauma and pain in a gentle but powerful manner. It allows us to see that in the darkest moments in life, we can find meaning and beauty, and it may speak to us on a deeper and more unconscious and universal level.

But it wasn’t just this isolated experience. It was also the images of Syrian refugees and the expressions on the children’s faces. I knew that look. I was there in a sense. So I also feel an obligation to connect my own story to this recent crisis. I want this to have a universal them, that this is part of the world we are in today.

CHAMSEDDINE: Tell us more about the story and how it was put together.

ALSHAIBI: I wrote a rough summary of the film, just to get something down. I knew it was going to be based on interviews and my own recollection of my childhood in Iraq. But I needed an animator that could help me begin the process of constructing this story. I had worked with Eman Akram Nader in the past and always felt a strong bond with her. Even though she was younger than me, our stories and our journeys are similar. She comes from Saudi Arabia and a portion of the film also takes place there. But more than that, Eman was a talented filmmaker and I wanted her near this project, I wanted Eman as producer. She recommended animator Caroline Voagen Nelson, who has a background in documentary animation. So with Caroline, Eman and my wife and artistic partner Kristie Alshaibi as producer as well, we started on creating a short animated teaser.

That short teaser, even though it’s still very rough and needs some work, was the door opening into what was possible. I could start to see it now. It was a revealing moment. Just from memory we reconstructed a scene from my childhood during war. When I showed it to my mother she said without hesitation: that’s how it felt, that’s how it looked.

CHAMSEDDINE: What sets this film style apart, especially when compared to other films set to the backdrop of ‘war torn’ MENA nations?

ALSHAIBI: Even though war is part of the story, the other story is what happens after war. I was still growing up and had difficulty dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. When we finally escaped the war in Iraq and moved to Saudi Arabia, I remember sitting in class while the teacher was making us memorize the Quran and every time a commercial plane would fly over, I would start freaking out. My heart rate would go up and I felt the world closing in on me. I wanted to hide for shelter. But I found prayer comforting and became very religious. But I also saw hardcore pornography for the first time in Saudi Arabia, as I was maturing into a teenager.

We would go back to the U.S.A., and I tried to adjust back to life there; but just as quickly we would return to the Middle East. Within that constant moving from country to country I discovered art, rock music, books, and sex. My first sexual experience was with a much older lady in Abu Dhabi when I was 15 years old. My parents eventually divorced before I finished high school, as we tried to settle in the United States. But I was this punk kid, trying to find my way, trying to find relief from this pressure that I always felt inside of me after the war. So, drugs and alcohol offered that relief for a bit.

Of course, that became a problem as well. But I tell the full story. For example, when I started taking LSD when I was teenager, it opened up this whole internal and external hidden space. There was something more out there. I was changing. I don’t want to hide anything or leave out the so-called embarrassing stuff. The more details I share, I believe, it can connect to other people in a much more human way.

NADER: What I appreciate most about “Boy From War” being an animated work is that it can reach a diverse audience both young and old, and there’s no limit to what we as storytellers can do within this format. It’s especially important in this case, since much of Usama’s recollection of his past exists in memory and in the countless conversations and interviews he has had with family throughout his life.

I’m particularly drawn to animated films that focus on subjects that are not typically associated with the format, such as Studio Ghibli’s “Grave of the Fireflies,” and of course, some of the influences for our project, like “Persepolis” and “Waltz With Bashir.” With animation, we can push the boundaries with how we experiment and truly contribute a unique point of view to narratives in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region.

CHAMSEDDINE: What do you want readers to know about the film, and why should they help you all make it happen?

ALSHAIBI: I want people to know that this would be a way of talking about war, loss, and trauma through the experiences of children. I’m interested in touching the viewer’s hearts so we are not so eager to bomb another country, or close our borders to people fleeing violence. I hope this animated film can make us more compassionate and help young people understand what it’s like to go through war. I want to make an emotionally honest film that can tell a story that is engaging and is part of our collective human experience. It’s a messy story, like most of our stories.

We are the children that have seen death daily, and somehow we are still here.

NADER: I want people to know that the story of “Boy From War,” this particular glimpse into Usama’s childhood in the Middle East and American Mid-west, is as relevant and universal a story today as it was for him in the 1970’s/80’s. The boy is not only every child that has grown up in and has been affected by conflict, but he or she is also every child that has endured great trauma and has found a way to make it through the hardship into their adulthood and beyond. Also, too often our complex stories are overlooked in favor of established stereotypical views of how to portray Muslims, Arabs, and Asians in the mainstream media and film and television. In light of this misrepresentation, it’s ever more critical to support projects that bring important narratives like Usama’s to light, and with “Boy From War,” we aim to offer an important and alternative voice that will continue to dispel those stereotypes.

Though the feature film is in production, you can view and help support this captivating project, “Boy From War,” by donating to the film’s campaign via their film page.

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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.