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Wish You Weren't Here

Iraqi-American filmmaker returns to his homeland in Nice Bombs

It's not a good time," Nice Bombs director Usama Alshaibi's Iraqi uncle tells his American guests in 2004, as though another season would have shown off Baghdad to better effect. "Ah, when's a good time?" Alshaibi replies. Certainly not 1979, when Alshaibi's family escaped the Iran-Iraq war and fled to the United States; definitely not 1991, when the 22-year-old director sought political asylum here to avoid fighting in the Gulf War as a recruit of Saddam's army. With Nice Bombs, Alshaibi joins a growing number of filmmakers who, having abandoned war-torn homelands for the U.S. as children, decide to make pilgrimages as adults and see what they've been missing. You can go home again—sort of.

Alshaibi indicates that his video diary aesthetic is cribbed from his shutterbug father, a professor who stayed in the Middle East and joins Alshaibi and his American wife on their journey to Baghdad. Much of the film, with its low production value and lapses into self-indulgence, consists of rattled, backseat footage of a city under siege but not yet in ruins and interviews with members of Alshaibi's extended family, who are still cheerful about the overthrow of Saddam, relatively so about the presence of the Americans, and flinch-free despite the nearly constant pop of bullets and shudder of bombs. "What was that?!" cry the Americans. "It's a bomb," cousin and resident cruise director Tareef replies, "A nice bomb."

Though the inside-look occasionally offers such strikingly quotidian gems, the film's dubious time-capsule quality—Alshaibi often forsakes insight or even applied attention for a "My Wacky War Holiday" approach—is underlined by a 2005 phone call with a bewildered, despairing Tareef. No longer shrugging off the increasingly alarming behavior of his people and his occupiers, yet too exhausted to engage in analysis, he longs only for what his American cousin managed at the age of 10, and again after wrapping his film: Escape.

 
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