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On Film: being Iraqi in America

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Jameil Al-Oboudi remembers Baghdad as a lively place in the 1950s and 60s: before the Baath Party consolidated its power, actors would often come to his parents' house to rehearse for his father's university and Free Theater Group productions, and "any night you could go to the symphony or see a ballet or go to the parks....Rarely would you see a woman in veils." Now 51 and living in Hyde Park, Al-Oboudi has tapped into his memories of life in Iraq to produce his first feature, Yousif--a lyrical film that follows the daily life of a 60-something Iraqi torture survivor and painter in Chicago.

Al-Oboudi's parents met in 1948 as students at the Goodman Theatre School, at the time part of the School of the Art Institute. His father, an Iraqi here on a scholarship from King Faisal II, married his mother, an Irish Catholic from Park Ridge, a couple of years later, and Al-Oboudi was born in Evanston in 1952. The following year the family moved to Baghdad, where his father went on to become a well-known stage actor and director and found that city's Academy of Fine Arts.

Al-Oboudi got a degree from the Art Institute of Baghdad and returned to Chicago in 1974 to study art at his parents' alma mater. "The writing on the wall said there were some terrible times to come [in Iraq]," he says. Over the next decade his seven siblings followed him to the U.S., as did his parents.

Life in America took some getting used to. "I was slightly misinformed about the States," says Al-Oboudi, who's spent the past three decades working in factories and as a printer, textile designer, and slide-show artist. "I had thought there would be caring for the citizenry the way a socialistic society would. Here you're very much on your own. You may have a job and they cut you and you're gone and you fend for yourself."

Isolation is one of the themes he explores in Yousif. A Christian, the title character lives in Pilsen above an Iraqi Kurd who plays his music too loud, acts as mentor to a Cuban woman from the restaurant where he works, and writes letters to his wife and daughter in Iraq. The tale is told mostly through stunningly beautiful visuals with voice-overs--which made it easier for Al-Oboudi to work with his cast of novice actors, including his family, friends, and local refugees from the gulf war.

Yousif is cleaning his apartment when he finds the first of a series of yellowed letters from an Armenian immigrant and World War I veteran named Joseph, and the film flashes back to increasingly elaborate scenes in which Joseph's war story--he loses a leg, loses his girl, and becomes disillusioned with Uncle Sam--is told using dissolves from still photos. The film's overall message, says Al-Oboudi, is one of inclusion and tolerance--"how fragile love is, and how easily it could be lost in war."

Exploring reincarnation, memory, and time, the film is also surprisingly funny--in one scene Al-Oboudi himself takes a turn as a self-important business owner trying to convince Yousif to give a talk at an Uptown refugee center. Al-Oboudi hasn't been back to Iraq since he left in '74; he says the film--the first by an Iraqi-American director--represents "all the ethnicity of Iraqis that are here in the States, but in a way where they are humane to each other. They express differences, but they are friends. It's restoring where Iraq was heading, toward a healthy statehood, before some ugly bunch took over."

He financed the project entirely from his savings; the bulk of the film was shot on digital video over three months in the fall and winter of 2001, and he started editing it on his computer a week before the U.S. invaded Iraq. When the war started, he briefly considered going overseas as an interpreter, but soon realized, in a nutshell, that he didn't want to. Instead he poured his energy into the film. "This is a protest, a quest for peace, to return to Iraqis a bit of their dignity," he says. "Dignity is lost when there is war.

"I look forward to seeing Americans for the first time saying, 'There's an Iraqi in the audience.' This opportunity isn't ordinarily given. I hope good results come from this."

Yousif will have its world premiere at 7:30 PM Saturday, November 29, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's "Arab Heritage Month" series; Al-Oboudi and members of the cast will be on hand. The theater is at 164 N. State, and tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800 or see www.siskelfilmcenter.org for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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