Tape Heads: a critical look at the American century | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Tape Heads: a critical look at the American century 

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Orland Park's MPI Home Video first attracted attention in 1986, when it released the Chicago Bears rap video "The Superbowl Shuffle." Later it drew even more notice with the video Faces of Death, featuring gory footage of corpses and violent ends. The ensuing controversy put MPI's owners, brothers Waleed and Malik Ali, on the talk-show circuit, and soon their company produced the slasher movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, filmed in Chicago. More recently they've issued Emile de Antonio's classic political documentaries--like Point of Order, about the McCarthy hearings, and Underground, a profile of the radical activist group the Weathermen. But perhaps the Ali brothers are now best known for releasing videos that capitalize on current events, including Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony, the opening statements of the O.J. Simpson trial, and a digitally enhanced frame-by-frame examination of the Zapruder film.

Their father came to the U.S. after the 1947 partition of Palestine. His family farmed orange and olive groves, but he picked up a new profession upon moving to Chicago. "He carried a suitcase filled with everything like combs and stockings and sold door-to-door," says Waleed Ali. He saved enough to open a lingerie store at 39th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), where Waleed worked on Saturdays.

"My father really loved this country, but he was afraid we were watching too much television," says Waleed. "I remember he told one of my uncles, 'He needs to be raised the way I was raised.'" So the young Ali went from Gunsmoke and 77 Sunset Strip to his father's home village of Beitounia, near Ramallah, and later attended an American Friends School on the West Bank. "It was like stepping back 600 years in time. You did learn family values, to put your family first. But I didn't come back with a hatred for the state of Israel....I was rather upset when I returned that the word 'Palestine' was never printed, no matter how many books I looked up. I think the first time I heard the word in America was in Exodus when Paul Newman refers to himself as a Palestinian. I couldn't understand how a whole people could vanish."

For the last several months Ali has been working on a series of ten videos titled "The 20th Century." He has at his disposal 60,000 hours of archival footage in the WPA Film Library, an MPI subsidiary, and new material, such as interviews he conducted with Palestinian literary critic Edward Said and former secretary of state Richard Murphy for a section on Middle Eastern history of the 1940s. The series opens with a factoid about Sigmund Freud postdating his 1899 tome The Interpretation of Dreams to make it look like his theory of the unconscious belonged in the new century. Other sections examine movies like The Birth of a Nation, Casablanca, and The Third Man as ideological lenses. But film mostly serves as Ali's storytelling medium rather than his star. "There is a protagonist. There is one character that runs through and through and that's the United States. I don't think it happens to be the worst country on the planet just because it's the most powerful. In so many ways it became Rome in Rome's heyday. Everything from technology to pop culture was exported to--even pushed on--the rest of the world. If television was around since 1898, this would be like watching television throughout the century."

So far Ali has completed only three decades of the 12-and-a-half-hour series; it won't be wrapped up until February. He'll leave a few minutes open for whatever transpires in the last days of 1999. "If the world ends, maybe we'll just leave the tape blank there," he says.

To order the videos, call 708-460-0555 or see MPI's Web site at www.mpimedia.com.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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