After he finished work as a programmer for this July’s Undershorts Film Festival, Usama Alshaibi was looking to put together something that showcased “more experimental work that wasn’t necessarily ‘entertaining’–films that are nonnarrative and that may not be easy to understand.” So the 31-year-old filmmaker and his friend John Guleserian, who runs the experimental film Web site, started talking about merging the democratic promise of the Web with the curatorial structure of a film festival.

“I was interested in doing a specialized film program,” explains Alshaibi. “They agreed to help, so we have been supporting each other.” Their partnership has produced the inaugural Z Film Festival, with NeoKino showcasing a selection of films on their Web site and Alshaibi programming a one-night-only screening of work unlikely to be seen at the local multiplex. “With Undershorts, we tried to appeal to a broad public,” he says. “With this one, I’m not.”

Alshaibi’s own work has been shown in the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the New York Underground Film Festival, and other venues. At the same time he’s made his shorts available on Web sites like NeoKino,, and, which are becoming increasingly well-known as forums for experimental film and video. His Dance Habibi Dance, a colorful four-minute film-cum-music video of scantily clad women dancing around a shirtless fat man, recently hit number one on Whoneedstv.

With the Z Film Festival, Alshaibi hopes he’s “put something together that the filmmakers can be proud of and the audience can afford and have a fun time at.” All of the films programmed by Alshaibi are made by Chicagoans, none of whom are household names to any but the most intrepid fans. Artists featured in the festival include SAIC graduate student Kristie Drew (Three Minutes in the Memory of Cathexis the Electronic Lover) and experimental filmmakers like Colleen Walker (3 Faggots) and Piotr Tokarski (Roof) who have been making films for years with very little exposure.

“I went out and picked who I wanted in this fest,” says Alshaibi, “but I want more people to submit work.” The festival also will screen O by Tom Palazzolo–the Steven Spielberg of indie shorts–and Alshaibi’s recently completed Dogirl.

The Z Film Festival takes place at 8 PM Friday, December 1, at the Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee, second floor. In addition to the shorts from Chicago, NeoKino will be showing works from their Web site, and Mark Siska from the Euro Underground Film Festival has been invited to show some works from Europe. Admission is $5. For more information, call 312-409-3890 or see the Critic’s Choice in Section Two.

–Lee Gerstein

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.