“I think there was something internally stimulating to go (to) that space, collectively there was a high, a mutual fantasy, we forgot we were making anything – it seemed like the performance was really for one another”
– Usama Alshaibi
“I wanted it to never really end – I wanted the feeling of being in the room – when we would screen the film later at lofts and such – we would take up a whole wall. Like it’s an extension of the room and you are watching this porn play – this peeking into something – something like the worse that we imagine but also innocent”
– Usama Alshaibi
Filmmaker Usama Alshaibi started making films in Chicago in the final decade of the 20th century, willing to explore various forms of cinema he has directed features ranging from the independent documentaries Nice Bombs (2006) and American Arab (2013) to the low budget horror feature Profane (2011), amongst others, and he has also directed numerous short films. These shorts – more directly linked to the underground tradition than his features – vary in tone from classic experimental films through to confrontational micro-narrative transgressive works, from contemplative explorations of colour and medium to explicit, twitchy, eroticism, and some of these shorts combine both transgressive themes and stylistic experimentalism. What all of Alshaibi’s films share, across styles and forms, is the director’s fearless commitment to using cinema as a unique and personal form of expression.
Alshaibi’s transgresive shorts explore sexuality, sensuality, lust, desire, fetishism, and occasionally the dark undercurrents that may be manifested in all of these areas. These films often see performers enacting specific fantasies or desires, for example; in Ass (2001) an image of anal masturbation is rapidly cut with an image of a mouth (a work that combines the filmmaker’s interests in both experimental cinema and sex cinema). Meanwhile, in Spoiled a heavily made-up woman keeps eating grossly coloured sweets, saliva and sweet sludge dripping down her chin as she crams increasing quantities of sugary jellies into her mouth. Other films included the wound/medical themed Gash and Patient, and a high-speed stripping/gaze–reversal movie Organ Molly (all made in 2008), named because of the accompanying organ music on the score. Free of narrative, these films are characterised by an abrupt and immediate style. Frequently these shorts offer brief glimpses into a specific manifestation of kink; minutely detailed explorations of transgressive sexualities or hints at sexual potentialities.
While most of these films last less than ten minutes, Alshaibi has also directed longer ‘short’ films, which explore similar themes but introduce more developed narratives that enable a more complex engagement with sexuality and character development. Perhaps the best of these works is The Amateurs (2003), which functions almost as a statement of intent; an affirmation for a specific form of transgressive cinema and groundwork for many of the themes that appear in the director’s movies.
The film opens with an interview with a young couple, but the action rapidly moves to the bedroom. Here a series of amateur porn performers and wannabe porn stars come and perform (or fail-to-perform) in a low budget sex film. But these scenes repeatedly fail to progress as expected; one woman starts to cry, another is happy for her co–star to examine her vagina with a speculum or insert beads into her asshole, but she is wearing an eye patch and the male talent becomes coy and over sensitive; worried he may hurt her. A potential lesbian scene is derailed when one actress gets bad stomach cramps, the director passing her a plate, hoping she’ll shit onto it.
Finally, a male drunk and his non–English speaking girlfriend enter, the man falls onto the bed and passes out while his confused girlfriend is groped and then fingered by one of the crew. Meanwhile those making the porn film debate the potential pitfalls of fucking a performer who does not speak English while her boyfriend is drunkenly sleeping on the bed. A woman from a previous set-up returns to the shoot, spouting racist abuse and wrestles with one of the male performers. The shoot gradually derails; nothing goes as planned and as the final credits roll the woman is left alone with her semi–comatose boyfriend. She leans over his buttocks and, in the darkening room, licks at his asshole as he sleeps.
The Amateurs emphasises sexual transgression, documenting the filmmakers and would-be-performers polymorphic perverse pleasures is central, simultaneously the film is about ambition, home-made pornography, commercial pornography and sexual failure. The assembled amateurs never successfully engage in any on–screen activity (the rimming sequence occurs after the film-within-the-film shoot has ended), instead the possibilities of their sexual liaisons are repeatedly negated by unforeseen or absurd circumstances.
If the cliché of pornography is the visual spectacle of ejaculation as evidence of authenticity there is no climax in The Amateurs, instead there is the endlessly differed moment of satisfaction that drifts, plateaus and detours but never cums. All that appears to occur is a strange form of ‘disappointment’, and despite the possibilities inherent in the scenarios and the performers’ willingness, there is never a moment in which those viewers familiar with watching mainstream porn are offered a spectacle commonly associated with the genre. Instead those mainstream pornographically-recognizable-pleasures repeatedly fail to manifest. This is not to suggest that there are not moments of eroticism at play, but these are manifested primarily through scenarios that are low–key, humorous, or fetishistic (often simultaneously), rather than simply object directed.
Alongside the narrative emphasis on sexuality, The Amateurs plays with the representation of the ethnicity of the director, his assistants and the performers, in part playing on the cultural clichés of the ‘racial other ‘anxious to corrupt the girls stripped for action before the camera’s greedy gaze. But these women are not simply vulnerable or corruptible, rather they are often powerful and assertive (the sexy one-eyed performer is more than happy to play with the speculum, it is the males who back-out), and in one case racist (trying to break-up a scene because the male participant is an Arab). Each effectively turning the tables on the filmmakers in different ways. The dialogue shifts from the seductive to the menacing to the comic, often within the space of a few lines.
In common with found-footage-films the work is structured so that the film is that which the protagonists are making, and The Amateurs’ power lies in this appeal to the authentic; the work appears to be a genuine series of porno scenes and outtakes through an appeal to the real, and the audience’s understanding of the codes of representation. Subverting these codes for a fictional work – but never announcing the work as fiction – enables Alshaibi and his collaborators to truly manipulate the audience, immersing them in an experience that is made all the more unsettling because they are unaware of the precise nature of the work itself, and following a viewing of the film audience members frequently ask if the work is, and the performers are, real. This unnerving aspect of The Amateurs is perhaps its most powerfully transgressive aspect.
The following interview was conducted via two-online conversations, due to the speed of posting some questions and some answers overlapped and broke into each other, where this has happened they have been edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning, where did the idea for The Amateurs come from?
It came out when I was working with Kristie (Alshaibi)1, she was building this porn website and I was kind of amazed at how these young women would just go to somebody’s house and do porn.
I mean, I met an art student waiting for the subway and she had an image of herself sucking off a guy on her t–shirt. I asked her about the shirt and she told me that was her art–– sucking strange men off and printing on t–shirts. I told her what Kristie and I were doing and she came to shoot a scene the next week, but that was porn.
That’s an incredible story, sucking people off for art. So, did this woman appear in the movie?
No! She was never in the film. But we did shoot a porn scene with her. She only wanted to do porn. But it gave me this idea, I mean many things were brewing in my head – I was more excited about the idea of what we’re doing than the actual act. If you think about it – it’s much better just to have sex with a hot girl than to try and shoot it. But I wrote The Amateurs, drinking and laughing. I was also editing some amateur porn on the side for these very boring porn companies. It was all very fake and stupid.
But I liked all the weird stuff before the women take off their clothes and perform when I was editing this bland stuff… I liked everything else.
You ask a lot from the performers in the film – I mean, nudity is hard enough, but obviously you go further.
The nudity was easy… most of the players had already done nude stuff in my work. Sarah Lynn from (Alshaibi’s short film) Traumata was in it – this is where she met my brother Samer for the first time, Kristie as Echo, Colleen….
You had this gang of artists and performers ready to work with you. Did you view it as collaboration or were you very much the director? I guess I wonder how much they brought to the shoot.
I would take things, aspects of their personality and expand it. Sarah with the eye patch, she had hurt herself in the eye and could talk about it for real.
I think for most they were aware of the artificiality but also enjoyed how far they/we could push it. Since I was in it, it was more internal, the performance was expansive and I could stay in character but also direct, since that was part of the premise, that line between fantasy and reality, between action and cut was blurred and removed in a sense.
There was nowhere to go but to be on set: to perform. The writing helped, knowing what was coming, but so much of the sexual stuff, those details we improvised. Even in the violence you could see a tiny smirk, a smile in joy and the brutality.
With the same cast members appearing in a lot of your films from around this period, it seems like a real community, I sometimes feel when I watch your movies from this period that there’s a Warhol/Factory vibe. All these creative misfits coming together under your gaze. Was that how it felt?
Yes, there was a community. Piotr, Colleen and I went to film school in Chicago – and we all seemed a have a fondness for the perverse and morbid – but all with a kind of humour and joy. It was just feral, a kinship, a kind of drawing to one another in our personalities and our tastes in films and music. We went out, we made films, we drank, we would shower nude, stay up all night and sometimes we were assholes to others and one another. But there was a kind of film and music underground in Chicago that was connected to the indie and post–punk music scene, but also stranger acts, like Lovely Little Girls, that felt more like performances. In film school, when it came to production the college we went to mimicked the Hollywood style of a film crew – and I get it. But I wanted to make films quickly; I had so many ideas and willing collaborators and weirdos willing to go into that world together. That was part of it, and also my access to film and video equipment. I had ideas and I could edit, direct and even shoot, so I had everything I needed. I didn’t need large crews – the cast were also part of the production. Piotr acted in many of my works but he would spend hours helping me set up the lights and check exposure with me. I was also performing in their films. But I think my output was faster with my work since I enjoyed editing and had more patience for it.
Just look at the film The Foreigner,2 a kind of seed was planted of what would come later. I think I was just able to feel free and I felt an intimacy with my creative friends – but nothing physical, besides Kristie, I was not really romantically involved with any of the female actors. I think there was just a trust – and an appreciation of what we could do. I always had this feeling like this was fleeting. That someone was going to get arrested or move, or something worse. I knew I had to keep moving and making work. I don’t deny that there was some jolt to my experience that was erotically and aesthetically charged, but all the head – these are the early transgressive films I was making in Chicago – there was a perfect combination of many talented people all working together. I remember while we were getting ready to shoot The Amateurs I played everyone Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. I was showing them the work I loved and I think they instinctively knew. When I think back, it’s the same type of style I use today, that is, I think of putting the set in a kind of trance, a tone we can carry all the way through. But yeah we hung out together, worked together and now it’s over.
When you made The Amateurs presumably you were aware of Warhol and Kern, to what extent did that stuff inspire you?
I was aware of Kern and Warhol, yes. But I felt close to Kern and was showing their work to my friends and even bringing in Film Threat videos into class. It inspired me in its rawness and simplicity, it was like nothing I had ever seen, especially Kern. It seemed to me like a real challenge to the hegemony of Hollywood and independent films. I like the so-called ‘imperfections’ of these underground films. I was also working at a video store and we had cult and underground sections – so I was aware of how a creative community can generate these types of films – but for me I was really all over the place – I was hyper, but organized enough to put it all together.
I guess that also the film is more linguistically extreme than physically so, they talk dirty more than anything. It tends to be the failure of the sex that informs the action. But when you remove that boundary, and push those things, it does create an intense atmosphere on set. How did you feel on set personally, knowing all of this? In the writing did you have the whole thing scripted, or just more general themes to be improvised around?
Oh man… it was an experiment. The more failed it seemed the better. The thing I told everyone, at least specific people who were clear on their sexual boundaries, I said “no penetration” and so they knew even if I said we were going to fuck you in the ass, they knew it was never going to happen, but everything else can happen as well. A combination of what we are doing– which is really not so extreme – but in the context of how its set up – it seems extreme and uncomfortable – people are in this frustrated frenzy. For the script more general – I had the story but not every detail, but stuff like the eye–patch was a detail I cared about
And one more thing I wanted to add… when I was a kid and would watch these European porn films – I had wild ideas of what a porn set would be like – I imagined all sorts of deviant things would go on. When I really saw some professional porn shoots I was bored, I mean there are great films out there but lots of stale work as well. It is the difference between the ability to shoot endless video and expensive of film… with this I liked the almost standstill slowness. A writer once said something like “if you were getting ready to take your dick out and jerk–off, put it back in.” The notion is that this is not jack off material, and maybe that was a really at the heart of this, we were celebrating porn but also making fun of it. Clearly there are some hot moments – but… it would never manifest.
Yes, I love that failure of eroticism the film generates, failed porn is such a great idea for a genre: You Can’t Quite Get Off.
The film was part of the world you were on the edges of already, I mean in terms of porn, and you’d obviously seen underground films such as The Evil Cameraman (1990) and My Nightmare (1993) by Richard Kern which also play on the function of the director as a kind of perverse fetishist, but while he makes the cliché of himself the butt of the joke, rejected at every turn, you take the idea into a different place I think. It seems to me that you had this very specific vision in regards to issues of ethnicity and myths of race – these Arabic and Eastern European men for want of a better term ‘abusing’ – or wanting to but failing – these mid-western girls – how did people respond to that?
Yes there was something about porn with these aggressive men with accents – I noticed there was a disgust and an arousal from some women (and men of course) when watching these types of porn – so that was something my brother and I did tap into – he beats the woman with the Quran, she calls him “Sand Nigger.” This was after 9/11 and the USA had just invaded Iraq, it was part of everything and tapping into these fears – the evil Arab/foreign cameraman. Of course Piotr is in there – who was in much of my early work and he is from Poland– a large portion of Chicago is Polish – but he never properly immigrated to the USA and had to move back to Poland.
I think we had desire, I mean if the mood shifted I could imagine things becoming more sexual… there was that feeling that maybe something would happen. But again I think the tension was interesting. It felt unstable to be in that state – it was a tease, but also exhausting. I mean you have to understand porn as an industry it kept making money. I used to work at a video rental story and our number one sellers were porn films.
I saw all sorts of stuff – and when I was doing some of this editing I would see these smart women playing these roles – playing a part for the camera – even when they are supposedly being ‘real’ the illusion of reality – or kind of projected reality.
Those elements where everything threatens to turn to chaos and then don’t are great and give the film its energy. I mean, when Kristie is crouched over the plate and they are talking of shitting there was a moment when I thought, “oh wow, are they going to do this?”
(Laughs) Yeah – that’s the thing; I knew that she might do it! So I was also wondering what the fuck is she going to do – I think maybe she was going to do it! And you know what – she says she would have done it but it wasn’t going to happen!! So you are onto something – the climax! I didn’t write that part.
How much was that relationship with Kristie responsible for you pushing your boundaries as a filmmaker?
It was a fusion of our desires, and maybe I felt very free in what we could explore, together. She was a big part of that. She helped me get out of my shell, I was very shy about showing my body or engaging in anything sexual on camera, she was just so open to many of my ideas, no matter how dark or violent, in fact we both found this common ground in something erotic but in the shadow.
Kristie had spent some time on professional porn shoots and seen all sorts of stuff. But moments like the women getting annoyed or angry I would see (in) the porn I was editing. They would be annoyed with the guy or complain about the smell or being forced in odd angles, all this negotiating that was going on – it reminded me of a type of filmmaking, but I was fascinated with this footage that I, as editor for these porn places, had to keep out, we had to maintain the illusion. It was typical that the women in the business had way more experience and more insight than the producers, or directors of these shows, who were typically trying to emulate something they had seen or something in their head…. but the reality of the situation and the logistics of filmmaking, all combined is what sparked The Amateurs – I wrote it within the context of my world at the time. I knew it was fleeting. I knew we would all go our separate ways soon. I know we were all thinking about what it means to perform in front of the camera like this. It was an interesting way of playing out fantasies and anxieties. When you look at the work Kristie and I were doing at the time it was a natural progression. We were just fearless and had no worries about who we offended or upset. It was truly one of the most easy shoots I’ve ever done. Nothing was really wasted. You see what we shot and not much else was left out.
I know Kristie produces your movies also – and she also worked a lot on The Amateurs, as actress and as an editor, how do the two of you work together, how do you collaborate on a project?
It depends on the project. We met through the medium of film. I was reading the ad section for film and video in our local alternative paper, The Reader, and came across a wild looking ad for crewmembers for pornographic art film. I was intrigued and programmed some of her work. So we were both making films and had similar tastes – when I was single, and after about a year of knowing her, we hooked up and it seems like our love affair was intermingled with out creative work. It just clicked. At the time Kristie was also really using porn and video and the aesthetic of the cam girl, which she was one of the early pioneers, and she also really embraced video in this unapologetic way. Although I was taught on 16mm film, and that’s what I shot much of my early work, when mini-DV came out and I saw what the Dogma 95 guys were doing, I saw the potential for video to be an easy and cheaper way to make films – almost everyone I know was trapped with money issues because they were shooting on 16mm or 35mm and had trouble pay for everything. Kristie and I really loved video and what we could do with it. So it started from there.
There was a period when she was starring in everything I was doing. It was great. But then one–day she said “no more” – and I respect that. And that was it. But I also acted in her early work. She’s always getting me naked. I guess I was doing the same. Good thing we got married! So with The Amateurs I was able to write and bounce ideas and would be encouraged by Kristie to go further and she would react with excitement and give me feedback – I knew if I could get her into it we had something.
The editing was straightforward and I rarely give editing duties to someone else, but I think Kristie had this very straight forward, no nonsense approach to editing. Nothing fancy, just long and natural takes with a few cuts. It has a grace to it and I also wanted her voice shaping the narrative – that was what makes The Amateurs almost gentle at times, it has brutality but there is also this sweetness. That was what came through when Kristie editing and shaping it.
The action in The Amateurs largely takes place on the bed, but the camera set ups become part of the narrative, because ‘we’ effectively see what the porn film will be as they are shooting it, how did you map that out, how much was worked out in advance?
I had developed some odd interview-fiction style that worked in some of my earlier short films. But I wanted to make something longer and that had characters that could be unleashed – and we could keep performing without ever having to re-do anything. There was no second take. I was going into the scene and never really coming out. But I didn’t want just one camera. So by using the bed and the room as the cinema-stage, I had one camera pointed at the head of the bed, forward, and another on the right, so you were boxed in with the scene. So the technique, the style of shooting informed the plot, the outcome. And since I am the director, playing an incompetent porn director, I serendipitously was able to direct the film while also being in the film. It worked and I made it clear that we should never leave our characters, we all became what we played, and that was easy in a sense, there was pleasure in being in that fantasy–cinema stage.
Where did you premiere The Amateurs? How was it received?
People loved it. At least the ones that told me so (laughs). People thought it was funny. The tape got passed around and it would be played at parties.
I played it at a loft art space in (the Chicago neighbourhood) Wicker Park and we projected it from ground level, so people just sat on the floor and watched it like it was an extension of the space, like they were peaking in – it felt very intimate – with a sense of freedom, like we were creating our own culture
Yeah I think by then the people that knew our work and hated it stayed away! (laughs).
You have said that this period in the film is over, why is that? Do you mean changing relationships and growing apart, or do you mean in terms of the kind of films you want to make? Could you make something like this now? Would you still want to?
Yeah, mostly changing relationships and falling apart. I’ve also moved away from certain ways I was doing films… it has to do with access and time – we all would spend three-four days together and work non-stop. But I’m older and my approach has changed – nothing drastic, just an evolution of how I make work.
To watch The Amateurs: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theamateurs