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Artvamp blog – images and thoughts on the creative process


OPM – Artvamp Tells All

“I’m taking a cue from Caveh. I’m going to sit here and tell you all about it.”

Here are my video reflections on the making of Other People’s Mirrors (transcript below).
And WATCH THE MOVIE HERE.

Caveh Zahedi is one of my favorite filmmakers. For those who don’t know, he’s made films like I Am A Sex Addict, Tripping with Caveh, In the Bathtub of the World. He appeared in Waking Life. Even if he’s not a household name, he’s the kind of filmmaker that other filmmakers know about. Even Alison Bechdel, who came up with the imfamous Bechdel Test for films, did a cartoon about Caveh called Is Caveh Zahedi God?

And now he’s doing a TV series called The Show About the Show.

Cahed Zahedi

Cahed Zahedi

Anyway what has always interested me about Caveh is his confessional documentation of life mixed with re-eneactments. He’s very persistent in his efforts to remain authentic and examine the self, and sometimes it makes others really really uncomfortable. He’s the ultimate in oversharing.

Anyway, I met Caveh right after his film I Am a Sex Addict came out in 2005. I was at The Tribeca Film Festival, and my husband was receiving an award for our documentary, Nice Bombs. We saw I Am a Sex Addict, and at the time I was a sex worker, and so Caveh’s fascination with sex workers held a particular interest for me. Later he came to hang out with us in Chicago while showing his film to a sex addicts support group there, and I ended up interviewing him for a magazine called $pread.

Which brings me to why I admire him so much, and why I’ve told my husband that he’s basically the male and much more successful version – of me!

Rewind to 1998. I began writing the outline of my first feature film, Other People’s Mirrors. To understand OPM, you have to understand the structure that I had INTENDED for the film but that morphed into something totally different. It was supposed to contain three levels of experience.

The first layer was the fiction – the erotic stories I’d written that would be acted out by performers. The stories revolved around a female character named Echo, who had been implanted with a device that gave her instructions to break 12 different taboos. There was also a sort of overseer – a character only Echo could see who witnessed as she followed the instructions. His name was Narcissus and he was played by underground film legend Nick Zedd.

a performance as Echo

a performance as Echo

The next layer was the observation of myself and the actors during the filming of the movie via web cams set up at my place and the apartment where the actors were staying. We had an audience of about 5000 people on a web site called 12taboos.com. It was a sort of Big Brother, reality TV sort of situation. On top of it, I did a number of weird erotic performances in front of the web cam.

The final layer of experience was going to be me, using the stories as a template to go out and try to enact these scenarios in the real world, and to have a documentary cinematographer follow me as I do so.

So there was me in the real world, seeing how different my taboo sexual fantasies would be from the reality. There were the fantasies played out by actors. Then there were the actors and crew in reality, on display for an audience during the whole process via the web site. And I’d somehow cut it all together to make something beautiful that commented on porn and fantasy and voyeurism and everything.

At the time Ana Voog and Jenny from Jennycam were the best known internet celebrities, back when the internet was young. And Ana was doing stuff on her 24/7 live web cam that I found really inspiring. Her body was her art! Her images were amazing.

Ana Voog

Ana Voog

I had wanted Ana to play Echo in Other People’s Mirrors, but she declined. She wasn’t comfortable doing scripted work, or not having 100% control of her image. So I befriended another young woman who was also doing cam shows. Her name was Melissa, and she went by the name Shakti. She later called herself Beautiful Toxin and now she’s known as author Melissa Gira Grant, who wrote the book Playing the Whore. Anyway after a mushroom trip in Northern California, which doubled as a screen test, I gave her the role. Minds were melded, fears confronted, and contracts were signed (all on web cam of course). I write more about it in my on-line memoir Secret Colony of One.

Melissa was smart and self-protective ad we’d talk a lot about her limits and she wanted lots of reassurances that she would be respected while doing some pretty outlandish sexual acts on camera. And one day, I was having a terrible bout of PMS, and we were going over the expectations, and she was voicing some misgivings about some particular scenes.

Melissa Gira Grant

Melissa Gira Grant

Something happened in me, and I cannot explain it. I think I was stressed because one of my grad advisors in the film department at the School of the Art Institute was questioning every aspect of the project and suggesting it may cause me mental illness to put myself in these situations.

Anyway, in a fit of annoyance at everything, I said, “Look I’m not going to mother you through this, Melissa. Either do the role or don’t.”

Yeah, wrong move. It’s not like I was paying her a ton of money to do this. She was doing it because she liked what I was doing and trusted me. That trust was shattered in a matter of seconds. Because I had PMS, and I was upset at my grad advisor.

She pulled out of the project. And I was left without my lead just weeks before shooting. And so, I morphed two aspects of the movie experience into one, and a split happened in me from which I’ve never recovered.

I had to do the fictional role of Echo myself. And I had to skip the documentary aspect. I would play Echo,stage everything, with lots of improv, and shoot the whole thing against the backdrop of the city of Chicago with no permits or permission.

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

There has been a movie made recently that did most of this quite successfully called Under the Skin. That movie made me really happy. The almost expressionless alien female on the sexual prowl, followed by a male observer or helper figure, set against a background of the real world, shot with hidden cameras. Setting aside the obvious parallels found in VonTrier’s romantic catalogue of perversities called Nymphomanic, which also came out in 2014, Under the Skin is the only film that exemplifies exactly the concept and methods that I was after, only streamlined and much better executed.

But the result in me, in writing, directing, starring and editing OPM, while exhibiting myself on the web the entire time, was a sort of split as I said. My grad advisor was right, in a way. In the process of being watched all the time by an audience, and in the process of playing this role – I became Echo. And Echo became an escort, and the film and the web presence became a marketing device for getting more clients. And sex work took over my art practice and dissolved any objectivity I might have had in the beginning of this whole process. I saw myself as the product, rather than the work as the product.

cam imageIt’s only now, nearly 20 years later, that I can look back and say “Shit, what the hell happened there?!” Now I know why my art practice suffered. And I know why I’m not as successful as Caveh, and why I didn’t make anything nearly as good as Under the Skin, and why I have, in a sense become a little bit paralyzed at times from moving forward with my ideas.

Anyway, the good news is, everyone I worked with while making OPM are doing well. My DP, Richard Bluestein, who had never shot a feature in his life before OPM, went on to create his own on-line persona called Madge Weinstein, who’s had a very successful podcast for years now. Melissa has published a few books and lots of articles and has become an advocate and activist for sex workers rights. My BFF, who back then was calling himself Witchdoctor and putting out CDs, and who played one of the main characters, while at the same time acting as Producer on the project, is now Ceven Knowles who runs Cerus Media in Berlin and has done a lot of fantastic films and music videos of his own.

And I became a producer, and supported my husband’s film career, which has taken off and he’s gotten into big film festivals and has broadcast his work on Sundance and PBS.

But I don’t think I’m done. I’m still figuring this out. I have lots of ideas and just trying to find way to accomplish them. I kinda feel like I’m starting from scratch all over again. But now I know enough NOT to snap at an actor or, most of all, not to forget my vision. So there’s that.

I’ve just released Other People’s Mirrors for the first time as download or rental. Movie extras include two short films, “Blood” and “Crying” edited from the movie’s raw footage by Usama Alshaibi. Also included are the auditions for the gang bang scene, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and captured and edited into a funny short by the film’s DP, Richard Bluestein.


[WATCH THE MOVIE HERE]

69 minutes
First Released October 2002

Written, Directed, and Edited by
Kristie Alshaibi

Starring
Echo Transgression
Nick Zedd
Ceven Knowles
Vladimir Zuravel
and others…

Director of Photography
Richard Bluestein

Music by
Ceven

Synopsis
In a pseudo sci-fi trip of pornographic proportions. In Other People's Mirrors, the camera feels like an extension of the unstable characters it is following, taking on a near-home-movie style documentation of street performance and improvised art. It centers around the journey of Echo Transgression, a schizophrenic sex addict, who believes that if she follows the instructions being transmitted directly into her spine, then she will escape to her own version of nirvana. Underground legend Nick Zedd plays the alien phantom of Narcissus, a secret agent who makes sure she stays on course.


[WATCH THE MOVIE HERE]
– Kristie


Reflections on Profane

Profane is Usama Alshaibi’s second feature film, self-produced with his partner Kristie Alshaibi through their studio Artvamp. It stars Manal Kara and Molly Plunk and was shot entirely in Chicago. The film has won several awards including Best Feature at the Boston Underground Film Festival and Best Experimental Film at the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival. It has screened at many film festival including the Porn Film Festival Berlin, Sydney Underground Film Festival, Lausanne Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

Reflections on Profane written by Usama Alshaibi.

I’ve had this idea for a long time. To make a film about a Muslim sex-worker who is conflicted about her job and religion. The idea of the djinn (a mythological spirit creature made from smokeless fire) came a little later as I was doing my own research. I was born in Iraq and raised as a Muslim. Although in my own family they were not extremely religious or conservative in regard to Islam– we would attend Mosque for special events and we did celebrate Eid. I also lived for a few years in Saudi Arabia where I became much more devout as a young Muslim and started to go to Mosque on a regular basis and reading the Quran daily. But I was also exposed to other things growing up there. I saw pornography for the first time in Saudi Arabia and would hear stories about orgies and drug use. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is extremely conservative as the birthplace of Islam– but it also had a lot of wealth. It was a place that had one face on top and beneath it was something else, something more sexual and chemical going on. It didn’t surprise me too much – this hypocrisy and dichotomy between religion and vice seem always intertwined.  As I wrote the outline of the character for Muna (the protagonist in Profane) I wanted her to be a real person but to also to embody some of that conflict that Muslims might go through (and for that matter anyone that is devout in their religion).

That was one element of what was driving me to write the screenplay and make the film. The other influence was from a story I heard from my uncle. He told me that he read about a famous Egyptian prostitute who was also a devout Muslim. She prayed the customary five times a day, and after her last nightly prayer, the Isha prayer, she begins to take clients. In the newspaper interview, she says that she doesn’t consider what she was doing as sinful, because she is surviving and feeding her kids. She says she is devoted to God and she knows that God is the only one that can judge her.

I liked that idea that my character would have a very personal relationship with God and form her own private ritual, in her prayers, that is infused with sensual devotion. But I wasn’t sure if I was brave enough to make the film. I was encouraged by my wife. She said “just make it.” So slowly I began, by shooting images of the character Muna. I started interviewing the actor Manal as Muna, who stayed in character. Her narrative and story emerged through that process. I knew that I didn’t want to make a traditional fictional film.  I needed other layers of insight into her world. So this style emerged – something interweavng documentary and fiction filmmaking, with an experimental bent to the whole aesthetic.

Muna_downtownAllah in red writing Muna-2more muna mary apt-12Muna in field

My own relationship to the Abrahamic faith fueled much of the creation of Profane. In some ways, the film helped me to exorcise my own metaphorical demons. As I grew older I started to identify more as an atheist and was critical of some of the passages in the Quran. But I still consider myself culturally Muslim. I’m still fascinated and entangled in the mythology and rituals of Islam. The Quran is a strange and poetic book. In creating Muna, I wanted her to embody the beauty of the Quran within her prayers and rituals. But she also has a projected fear of what she refers to as her djinn. These supernatural creatures, the djinns, are very much part of Islam and are mentioned in the Quran many times. Unlike the Christian notion of demons, djinns can be either good or evil. Although their reputation is one of mischief. I liked that idea of creating a narrative that obeyed the Quranic rules of the behaviour of the djinn. This mythical, or even mystical, djinn thus becomes something real, or something metaphorical in Muna’s perception of what is happening to her. Is it in her head or is this something real? The implications of this depends really on your own belief system. If you believe in supernatural powers, then she is truly haunted. If you look at it from a scientific perspective, then perhaps she has a drug problem combined with mental illness. I present these issues but I don’t necessarily answer them. That is left up to your interpretation.

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There are many practices in Arab culture that come from pagan traditions and pre-date Islam. The evil eye, reading coffee grains, talismans and charms come from old traditions and practices that are usually passed down by generations through women. So from Muna’s perspective, she is in a contemporary way combining her own particular style of praying into core Islamic belief. So she might be in her underwear when she prays, but she does cover up her hair. On the outside that may seem silly, but it’s all a bit silly if you examine it. She is reacting to what she believes she must be doing and what she feels like doing. But she is also using the hijab (head scarf) for a purpose unrelated to modesty. She uses it as a symbol to create a sacred space for herself within her own very personal ritual. So I don’t think Muna really represents Western nor Eastern values. I don’t believe her “Western” lifestyle is that typical of Western attitudes. I think people in the West might be tolerant of prostitution but it’s not mainstream in any capacity. I think it would have the same level of taboo in both cultures. I also don’t think Muna’s excessive drug and alcohol consumption is that acceptable in either culture. But yes, there is a certain diving into vice that Muna explores in the United States that would have to be a bit more secretive if she was in a Muslim country. The irony is that there is nothing she is doing in the United States that she could not do in the Arab world. It’s just more underground in some parts of the Middle East.

muna_demon
There are traditions in many religious beliefs that conflate sensual and mystic/religious ecstasy. Usually, when it comes to religious devotion, we will see passion in reciting of the Quran from men. Rarely will you hear women reciting passages from the Quran in front of Muslims or hear a woman’s voice when it comes to call to prayer. And you will rarely ever see women lead a prayer group. I wanted to preserve Muna’s free-spirit with her belief. She feels very sensual toward the Quran and the prayers, so she makes herself slightly naked to it. She is playing with powerful symbols. In many cultures there is a kind fear and taboo when it comes to women and their bodies and hair. She is placing herself within that energy and making it her own. You also have to keep in mind that what we are seeing is something very private. When she prays in her bra, she is not doing this in public, just alone in her room. As I mentioned before, the headscarf is recontextualized for Muna and becomes a way to remove herself from the mundane and enter into a more meditative or sacred mindset. She places herself as a submissive to God. And in accordance to Islam that is exactly what she should be doing, to submit. So I wanted to reveal that about Muna. That she is a sensual religious person that has her own personal relationship with God. Muna says it in the film when asked why she gave up escorting: I used to submit to men now I only submit to God.

I don’t think Islam as a religion causes any friction within Muna. It’s the people, particularly the men, who want to enforce their own dogma or rules onto her. The religion is benign in a way. It is the men who come to her apartment to ‘save’ her in a way from how she is practicing Islam. They come to set her straight even though she doesn’t believe she is doing anything wrong.

People have asked me if I was worried about making this type of sacrilegious film. I wasn’t too concerned with causing any offense to Muslims. I’m not trying to offend anybody but I can’t control it if they are. I don’t believe the film has caused any offense at any screenings. When I premiered the film at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, there were some Muslims in the audience and they appreciated the film and commented that they knew people like Muna. I think there is way too much fear when it comes to artistic expression associated with Islam. I think because there has been such a back-lash against Muslims in general, it makes it more difficult to make this kind of film. But I think people of Islamic faith will really appreciate my film. But of course you worry about some of the extremists out there. I don’t want to live my life afraid, and we need more Muslims and Arabs to stand up to the religious police and thugs.

The BDSM scenes in my film are very much real. My wife, Kristie, owned a BDSM studio in Chicago called Holy Mountain where some of the women in the film worked. As the name implied, my wife took a sort of mystical or spiritual approach to the business of kink, which made it all the more appropriate to use the space for several of the scenes of Muna in her role as professional Dominatrix. The “slaves” in the film are real submissive men who pay these women for services. I have many friends that are professional sex-workers and I worked closely with them in creating these scenes. Most of them were in the film. I was not so much concerned with pushing boundaries but with showing how Muna and her friends lived and worked. Yes they partied a lot and had a casual relationship with sex. I’m not really trying to test the boundaries; I’m trying to show what I believe to be truthful. Some of the sex and drug-use might be a bit stylized but mostly it draws directly from real life. There is a seedy side to every culture. What I was showing is just this one slice of life.

Much of society shames other humans for how they love, how they fuck and how they pray. I wanted to make a film that was not only a story expressing a unique form of devotion, but also a film that is a testament to the freedom of expression in all its sacred and profane forms.

[Watch the film online here]