VDB Asks... Saif Alsaegh

Saif Alsaegh

Saif Alsaegh is a United States-based filmmaker from Baghdad. Much of his work deals with the contrast between the landscape of his youth in Baghdad growing up as part of the indigenous Chaldean minority in the nineties and early 2000s, and the U.S. landscape where he currently lives. His films have screened in festivals including Cinéma du Réel, Kurzfilm Hamburg, Kassel Dokfest, Aesthetica Short Film Festival, and in galleries and museums including the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and Rochester Contemporary Art Center. He received his MFA in film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

1. Can you tell us something about your background? 

I was born in 1991 in Baghdad, Iraq. I am part of an indigenous ethnoreligious minority of Assyrian/Chaldean Christians. During my early life in Iraq, I lived under the horrible dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, economic sanctions, the 2003 American invasion, and the violent aftermath of the war that persecuted ethnic Christians. During that time, I observed how everything around me changed. How people became displaced, including me. I left for the United States and was separated from my family who also sought immigration to the U.S. While I was studying and working as a journalist in Iraq, my brother introduced me to poetry, which I consider the start of my artistic path. With reading and writing poetry, I tried to make sense of all the chaos around me. I left journalism school in Iraq and received a scholarship to continue my higher education in Montana. One can imagine what it was like moving between the very different landscapes of Iraq and Montana. 

2. What inspired you to become an artist? To use video? 

The routine of everyday violence and chaos made everything strange and faraway, and maybe that was the hardest part of living in a war zone. When I moved to Montana for college, the chaos and uncertainty I experienced growing up in Baghdad through wars, sanctions, and then diaspora left me with many blurry memories that started to become clearer as time passed in the calm, empty state of Montana. Fragmented memories returned: how the people and the streets felt after every explosion, when dust filled our mouths and ears. I wanted to represent the contrast of worlds in my life through film, because the experience of these worlds was so visual to me. I couldn’t just film the Iraqi landscape, which I will probably never see again, and anyway I didn’t think that simply filming my life in either place would encompass the contrast I witnessed. I wanted to show on screen the dislocation of diaspora, the vividness of survival, the surreal nature of these experiences, so I never wanted to use normal modes of cinematic representation. I wanted to create moving image poetry with calm and chaotic visuals that make the viewer uncomfortable. For example, in Bitter with a Shy Taste of Sweetness I wanted to represent California’s landscape as foreign yet familiar, disrupted by my childhood memories. The camera tilts or spins, making the beautiful Southern California beaches and mountains jarring while the sound distorts the bright colors of the landscape. Through second-person writing and shrilling visuals, the film aims to make the viewer feel off-balance, disoriented, and estranged from the landscape and content, offering them the dislocating feeling of survival and immigration. 

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling? 

Yes, I was very lucky to attend the MFA program in film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I watched and analyzed amazing works curated by great artists, not to mention meeting colleagues who were challenging every notion of the boundaries of the cinematic arts, whose works still inspire me. 

4. How do you balance life and art? Are you able to make a living through creating art? 

Making experimental and hybrid documentaries doesn't usually make you a lot of money. I’m always trying to work on my films and be involved in my artistic practice throughout the year. I’m lucky as an educator who teaches filmmaking at California State University-Fullerton to have summers mostly off where I can do a lot of planning and writing. Being in academia is where I make my steady income. I always found that residencies really inspire me as well to make art. Being immersed with an artist community always gives me motivation to work harder and be focused. 

5. What influences or motivates you in the world? 

The broad answer is the human condition. I’m interested in a lot of fields besides art and I think that informs my practice quite a bit. In daily life, I’m always drawn to those kinds of poetic human moments such as dancing and cooking, which I focused on in my film 1991. These harsh or romantic moments, especially of my memories in Iraq, are used to juxtapose the strangely calm life I have in the United States. 

6. What artists or movements are you following right now? 

There are a lot of people to name. I follow many artists in all kinds of mediums. Recently I have met amazing painters like Paula Mans and Steven Yazzie. I’m always interested in art that speaks about the underrepresented and the marginalized. Some inspiring film and video makers I have been following are Isaac Julien, Mati Diop, André Novais Oliveira, and Jafar Panahi, just to name a few. I also try to always be updated on my filmmaker friends’ new works. 

7. What was the last exhibition you saw? 

The last exhibition I saw, I think, was a collection of photography by Dawoud Bey, where I was struck by the scale of sadness in his landscape work. 

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work? 

Festivals, organizers, and curators have been very generous throughout the years, so it’s very hard to pick. Until very recently, I wasn’t able to attend any of my screenings outside of the United States due to my immigration status. Though I never attended Fronteira - International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival in Brazil, it has always been close to my heart. In the United States, my solo screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center was an amazing experience, Drew Durepos and Emily Eddy did an excellent job organizing. 

9. What are you working on right now? 

I’m working on DogHate Poets which is an experimental documentary hybrid film that navigates the ideas of fear, destiny, and war by following a complex narrative about two poets and their dogs. The film follows an unnamed poet and skinny stray dog in Baghdad just after the 2003 American invasion and after Saddam Hussein’s statue fell in the center of the city. It also follows Buck, a drunken western poet with his dog Champ navigating life in the state of Wyoming. The narratives of both dogs and poets overlap, and at times the stories disappear into each other, making the viewer wonder whose life is whose. 

The film was inspired by Buck, a local legend who resided in Ucross, WY and a stray dog I used to see daily when I lived in Baghdad. The project is in early stages of development. 

10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished? 

I always start a piece by either writing a few lines of poetry or prose and developing a concept for a scene or a sequence. In a way I find a button that seems interesting and unique and I try then to make a whole suit for that button. Of course every film is different, at times I gather a lot of different footage and writing and then fit them all together, which is how I made Bezuna. Sometimes this process is very tiring because you always feel a little lost. But other projects require creating a pretty comprehensive outline and then the production process begins, which is more how I’m approaching the film I’m working on right now. With experimental non-fiction, it’s always hard to know when a piece is done. I always know how my films start and end, but mostly get stuck somewhere in the middle. The moment I figure out the middle part I call the film done, pending technicalities of course. 

11. What are you currently reading? Watching? 

I always read poetry, a couple of people I have been reading are Louise Glück and Kaveh Akbar. I have also been reading Julian Barns’ The Noise of Time which deals with Shostakovich’s life under the dictatorship of Stalin. I recently rewatched William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and Jafar Panahi’s new film No Bear. Both filmmakers deal with this hybrid mode of making cinematic reality, which I’m really interested in. I also watch a lot of shorts, a recent one I stumbled upon which I found beautiful was Mutts by Halima Ouardiri. 

12. Room for final thoughts:

If you can, get a dog, they are great.

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