CSIS keeps Concordia grad from Harvard
Creator of Being Osama: 'How much more does an Arab need to do to become a Canadian?'
February 27, 2005
Mahmoud Kaabour was given more than $300,000 in Canadian public funds to make a documentary about how unfortunate a name like Osama can be in the post-9/11 era.
While not a mainstream blockbuster, Being Osama has won an award, been picked up by CBC and is to be shown with other films next month at Harvard University under the heading New Documentaries From the War on Terror.
Only problem is, Kaabour, a Concordia University graduate and Lebanese-born Muslim, might not be able to attend the screening. He hasn't received security clearance from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in his application for permanent residence.
According to Immigration Canada, Kaabour has received everything else: medical clearance, assurances from Quebec that he is wanted here, and acceptance from Ottawa that he be allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.
But the U.S. is unlikely to grant the 25-year-old a visa if there's a possibility he won't be allowed back into Canada.
"He's free to go wherever he wants," Immigration Canada spokesperson Richard St. Louis said. "But we can't guarantee that he'll be allowed to return."
"I'm very frustrated," Kaabour said in a recent interview. "Having lived here so long, having perfected my English and French and contributed to multi-culturalism with my film, I find it absurd that I keep waiting for the day when I'll be considered a permanent resident of this country.
"How much more does an Arab need to do to become a Canadian?"
Kaabour arrived here in 1998 to study, and notes all his non-Canadian classmates have since received permanent-resident status. In the meantime, he fears he might miss a golden opportunity for his budding career.
"I'm so thrilled about this chance to go to Harvard because I would never have dreamed of being able to go there because of the expense and the academic qualifications. And now I'm being invited to speak to their film community about the experience of making this film," he said. "This is huge for me, and it's a big break for Canada to take our perspective there."
Kaabour's goal in making his film was to try to explode the stereotype of Arabs that has developed since the attacks - a stereotype that makes them the object of suspicion and closer scrutiny while travelling.
The irony isn't lost on Steffen Pierce, a filmmaker and assistant curator at Harvard's film archive who decided to show six films March 11-13 that demonstrate the impact the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States had on people's lives.
"I'm fascinated as an American to find that some of the challenges we face are washing over into Canada," he said in a telephone interview from Boston.
He said that in "another time" PBS would have aired such documentaries as Kaabour's and the others being shown at Harvard. But the public broadcaster is under such enormous political and financial pressure, it's difficult to show anything that could be controversial, Pierce said.
"So it falls upon institutions like the Harvard archive to do programs that touch on this topic," he said. "We have a responsibility to participate in this dialogue as well."
Kaabour received $309,000 from CBC, Telefilm and the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund to make his documentary. When he placed ads in and circulated e-mails looking for Montreal Osamas to tell their stories, he was flooded with responses and, eventually, narrowed it down to seven Osamas (but no bin Ladens).
Among them are Osama Shalabi, whose bank account was frozen after he tried to deposit a cheque made out to him; Osama Demerdash, whose colleagues tried to get him fired; and Osama Sarraf, whose burgeoning career as a popular DJ and musician ground to a halt and who was hassled every time he tried to cross the U.S. border.
"It was a strange concept, because usually you hear about people suffering a backlash because of skin colour, race or religion," said Kaabour when he was making the film. "But this was because of name only."
The one-hour Being Osama, produced by the Montreal film company Diversus in association with CBC, won best documentary last year at the University Film and Video Conference in the United States and will be aired on CBC's The Passionate Eye at 9 p.m. tomorrow night. It is the only Canadian film - among offerings from France, Germany, Australia and the United States - being shown at Harvard.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005
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