Q & A – Interview with Tim Schwab

“Being Osama” was named “Best Documentary” at 2004’s Juried Screenings of the University Film/Video Association conference. It is the story of five men with the given name Osama. The Osamas, though, are a diverse group. There is a rock musician, an opera expert, an activist on immigrant rights and deportation of refugees, a Muslim school director, and a devout Muslim student at Concordia. And they all are Osamas living in Montreal.

What were the main points you introduced in your documentary, Being Osama, at the “World’s Religions Conference after September 11” this year?

The idea of Being Osama was to understand people whose names are Osama after 9/11; to see the reaction of people whose names are Osama, which is one of the most popular names for Arab men in the Muslim world. The other major point of the film was to show that the guys (the five Osama characters) are also very different from each other. We were trying to make a point about the way people see-because of fear and because of politics-Muslims and Arabs through one lens. They are seen, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a radical religious group. [People are] assuming all Arabs are incredibly political or radical. We were also trying to show there is a diversity of people whose names are Osama. They are individuals. They are part of a culture. Some of them are very religious, some are secular, and others westernized, or political and others don’t really care about politics.

Did you have any particular biases before or after shooting the documentary?

One of the great things about making documentary films is that you learn so much about a topic. The biggest impression that I had after making the film, specifically about the Arab community, was how much suffering a lot of people went through; how many Arab families and how many Arab people have fled wars and repressive governments. They’ve gone through real hardship. Not everybody, but an awful lot of them, have had difficulties. They are viewed almost in a hostile way in our society. There is a lot of fear about Arab people and there is a misunderstanding about them being extremists in terms of religion and politics. I saw the difficulty that a lot of them had and saw the great lengths they’ve gone to come here to adapt to Canadian society and become part of it.

How did you come across the five Osamas used in your film?

Interesting story. The idea started with one of my film students, Mahmoud Kaabour, originally from Lebanon, here at Concordia. He started recruiting by going to student associations-the Syrian Students Association (SSA), Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR)-and got people after the meetings. One of the subjects was Sam (Osama) Shalabi, the Egyptian musician, who is a friend of one of the producers. He composed the soundtrack for Being Osama. We also researched through the Internet and talked to people to see if they would be interested. We talked to 17 Osamas at one point. At the end, they had different reasons for wanting to become part of the project. They didn’t know each other but we had the idea of having them all meet at the end.

How did you mix in humor while still addressing difficult issues?

It took a year. The original idea was the difficulty Arabs had been going through [in Canadian society]. When we first started to think about this film, it was close to 9/11. But as time went by and [9/11] got further away, it was less fresh. When we started shooting the film, the invasion of Iraq was just beginning. The first night we shot was the night that George W. Bush said Sadaam Hussein had 48 hours to [leave] Iraq. With all of the people at the demonstrations and people starting to die, the [five Osamas] said that some of the stuff that had happened to them now didn’t seem that important. We wanted to address politics but we wanted to show that nobody’s life is all seriousness. We always wanted to have a little playful quality; to try to deal with an issue in a humorous way. Sometimes documentaries are so heavy, so it’s a way of making them a little more accessible and make the guys more human. How we did it? I don’t know! Lots of editing, lots of shooting.

Do you keep in touch with anyone involved in the documentary afterward?

[Yes], with Mahmoud. I run into one of the Osamas very once in a while but not closely no. We all live in different worlds. I see Sam, as he plays music in a lot of different places in town. The one at the back of the picture [I have here in my room], Osama Dorias, the very religious one, lived in my neighborhood so I used to see him a lot. There was a story I wanted to do with him that I really couldn’t. He is a Political Science student here [at Concordia]. He worked for Bell at costumer service. When consumers had a problem and would call in, he would say: ‘hello, this is Osama. How can I help you?’ and people would say, ‘What did you say?’ and he would reply, ‘My name is Osama’, and then they would say, ‘Is it really?’ [Laughs]. But Bell we couldn’t get access to film this for various reasons.

How is Islam still related to terrorism?

Islam is associated with terrorism because there are relatively few radical extremists who carry on very violent acts motivated by their own understanding of Islam. One thing that frustrates me about the film, this issue, is that before 9/11, the biggest type of terrorism that was carried out in the US was carried out by white Christian racists, neo-Nazis. They blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and nobody said, ‘Oh, well now we have to search everyone who looks like these guys’. I felt a lot of frustration as I am sure Muslim people did much more because there is a radical and extremist element in Islam that attaches to the whole religion and culture. It would be like saying because the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is committing acts of terrorism, ‘Oh, well those are Catholics.’ But they are a small group that has a political motivation. They don’t represent everyone who’s Catholic.

How do you think the media has treated the events of 9/11 in terms of building stereotypes?

It’s undeniable. It was a huge event. It was designed for television, designed for media. And this has had an enormous impact. If you think of three thousand people dying in a single attack like that — but almost 3,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq since then. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died from the bombing and it doesn’t seem to have the same resonance with people. I think people in the West have had fear and lack of understanding about Islam and the Arab world.

Does this have anything to do with how the media has covered events related to Islam?

Yes. But there are also historical reasons, seeing it as a rival religion in the Middle East after the establishment of Christianity. It is an easy shorthand way [of saying] that terrorists are Islamic extremists, as opposed to [asking] what their political motivation is. Sometimes it is hard to separate politics from motivation.

The “Religion and Media” panel at the conference last September (World’s Religions Conference after September 11) explored the possibility of peace through the media. How could the media begin to promote the start of this idea?

There is always so much pressure to do things and to deliver quickly and to make things simple and understandable so we [journalists and documentarists] all sometimes lack any kind of subtlety of giving background information. It’s sometimes almost easier to do a clich

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