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In her debut feature, Cherien Dabis takes a family experience and makes it into a universal story that breaks down the stereotypical view of Arab Americans and uses humour to say something meaningful; when casting the central character, she was looking for the quality of optimism, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

The phone line to Los Angeles must have been specially treated for my interview so it sounds as though filmmaker Cherien Dabis is talking from a battered black bakelite phone in the middle of the West Bank, along scruffy, underserviced telco lines. Twice the connection is lost. We persevere, and there is a sense of accomplishment when, after the second break, we finally manage to conclude the conversation. She finishes what she was just saying about her parents’ reactions to her first feature, Amreeka: “I was saying my parents were thrilled and shocked … shocked that I took those difficult times we experienced and made it into something positive and illuminating for audiences.”

"the inspiration for the story"

The family experiences to which she refers form the inspiration for the story. Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian single mum, struggles to maintain her optimistic spirit in the daily grind of intimidating West Bank checkpoints, the constant nagging of a controlling mother, and the haunting shadows of a failed marriage. Everything changes one day when she receives a letter informing her that her family has been granted a U.S. Green Card. Reluctant to leave her homeland, but realising it may be the only way to secure a future for her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), Muna quits her job at the bank and visit her relatives in Illinois (Hiam Abass, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Ali Shawkat) to see about a new life in a land that gives newcomers a run for their money...

Dabis was a teenager in Ohio when her aunt came over from the West Bank. “The character of Muna is loosely based upon my aunt. By the time she immigrated to the U.S., I was old enough to see her struggle. The movie is a sort of heartbreaking and heartwarming story of a woman who is optimistically trying to start a new life in a climate where the odds are against her. But she’s too full of hope to see the odds. That’s my aunt, the ever-optimist. It was that quality in her that inspired the character of Muna.”

Dabis wanted to portray Arab Americans in a different light to how they are mostly seen; she wanted to show them as ordinary people who defied stereotype. “During the first Gulf War, we were very much scapegoated. We got death threats on a daily basis and the secret service came to my high school – this is how bad it got – to investigate a rumor that my older sister, my 16-year-old sister, threatened to kill the president. I was 14 years old at that time, and I sort of took everything that I’d learned in my travels back and forth from the Middle East to the U.S., and all the various news channels I’d watched from Arabic satellite to English news, and I started really questioning what people were telling us. I started seeing how the media was perpetuating the stereotypes that were directly affecting me in high school, and my family, in this small town.”

That experience was the basic trigger for Amreeka, and why it is set at that time. But there are other factors at play: “When people ask me where I’m from it’s always kind of a confusing question,” Dabis explains. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. right before I was born. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in rural Ohio, yet going back and forth to Jordan every summer. I wasn’t American enough for the Americans, nor was I Arab enough for the Arabs. Or at least that’s how I felt.”

"a kindred cultural spirit"

Cherien Dabis found a kindred cultural spirit in Producer Christina Piovesan of First Generation Films. Piovesan came across Dabis while searching for a project that would reflect her own experience of having immigrant parents: “A lot of my films are foreign films or cultural films. It’s just something I’m interested in” says Piovesan. “My mother is Palestinian-Lebanese and my father is Italian. Even though I was born and raised in Toronto, I grew up in a culturally rich, mostly Arab home, so that is what I sought.”

Piovesan had been developing several feature projects and after a year of overseeing production of other people’s movies for Telefilm Canada, she was posed to make her first. Because of her own heritage, she became motivated to tell a story that reflected Arabic culture: “I decided that I wanted to see more films that reflected my cultural roots. Because my parents hadn’t been back to the Middle East since immigrating to Canada in the 1970s, I had never experienced the culture first-hand. I felt that making a movie set in the world, about the culture, would give me the experience I craved. And it did.”

This is Dabis’ debut feature, but she has directed multiple episodes of The D Word in 2005, described by the Boston Globe as a hilarious and perceptive parody of Showtime's ensemble lesbian dramedy 'The L Word.

"The applause got louder"

Amreeka – the Arabic word for America – won the Best Film award at the Directors Fortnight in Cannes this year, where it was greeted with a six minute standing ovation – during which Dabis didn’t know what to do. She finally stood up. Her mother was there, and she stood, too. They started crying, and they hugged. Her mother hugged her so tightly that it unfastened her dress and it almost fell off. The applause got louder. It continues in cinemas ….

Published November 19, 2009

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